Speaking for myself, Revelation is not easy to get to grips with. It’s a vision – as the title says, it’s a revelation – a prophecy. It’s full of picture language, symbolism, and maybe even secret code. It assumes its readers know the Old Testament, but it is very different from most of the rest of the Bible. It reassures believers who are being persecuted and talks of the future – of life in a new heaven and earth where there will be no more evil.
So, after much about strange symbolic beasts and angels and scrolls, which we should look at another time, we come, perhaps with some relief, to the description in chapter 21 of the new heaven and new earth where “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:3-4).
Ah – at last something we recognise! That comes in the funeral service – this must be a description of heaven.
So, what is this place like? It’s described as a city, surrounded by high walls and with twelve entrance gates. When John saw it he said, “It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel…” (21: 11). And down the middle of the street flowed a river “as clear as crystal”, with beautiful trees covered in fruit growing on either side. That sounds really nice.
But for me, it sounds more like a place I’d prefer to visit rather than to live in permanently. I’m not a city person, and I prefer my rivers to be clear mountain streams. Does that mean that ‘heaven’ will not be quite as heavenly as it should be?
But we need to look more carefully, and then we shall see, as with so much else in Revelation, that this is not the description of an actual place, but rather a picture of something else. When John is shown the city he says, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (21: 2). This is a person – or rather many people, because the bride is in fact a picture of the Church.
In the Old Testament Isaiah pictures God’s people as his bride (Isaiah 54: 5). The idea was further developed when Jesus told his parable about those invited to the wedding banquet of the king’s son (Matthew 22: 1-14), explaining that many of the original guests refused to take part, making all kinds of excuses. And Paul also describes the Church as being the bride of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph.5: 32).
Although it is described as having walls and gates, this would be a very strange city if it were a real place. In chapter 21 an angel measures its dimensions, and it turns out that this is a city, which could never be built. It is a perfect cube, measuring the same in length, width and height, and this perfect shape indicates that it is of God’s building. It is constructed of all the “living stones” which are described by Peter when he says, “you, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2: 5). All those who put their trust in Jesus, the cornerstone, will be a part of this amazing structure.
In writing to the church in Ephesus Paul tells them, “You are … fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2: 19-22).
This ‘city’ is being built – it is not yet complete, and it is certainly not just a pleasant holiday destination for those who have reached the end of their life here on earth and want to while away their time sitting under the trees by a beautiful river.
Of course, the crystal clear river is not ‘real’, any more than the city is. It is also a picture – a means of describing something. It is called “the water of life”. It flows from God’s throne in the city and runs down the middle of the street. It is there for everyone who is a part of this city – it is in fact what turns them into ‘living stones’ because the water of life is God’s Spirit. It is what Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 10), and what he later offered to anyone who was thirsty. John explained that these streams of living water were indeed the Spirit (John 7: 37-39) who would be given to believers to enable them to be ‘living (and active) stones’, to enable them to fulfil their role as part of this great city.
Then John says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev, 21: 1-2). It was into this remade earth that John saw the city, the bride of Christ, the Church, in all the perfection of each of its members, descending from God and radiant with his glory.
God will live there with his people, and “they will see his face” (22: 4). When in the Bible do we hear of human beings walking and talking with God like this? Well, right at the very beginning, in Genesis, before things went wrong.
When God created human beings he put them in a beautiful garden. It was watered by a river; there were all kinds of trees and plants, which were good for food, and two special trees. The tree of life they were allowed to eat from, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were not to touch, for God warned, “when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2: 16-17).
We all know the story of what happened. Not only did pain and death become part of humanity’s lot, but also the man and the woman were removed from the garden. They could no longer enjoy walking and talking with God face to face. Survival became hard work, and creation itself made life difficult. They no longer had access to the tree of life so death became a part of their existence.
John tells us that in the city, “No longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22: 3). The citizens “will see his face” once again (verse 4). The river, which gave life to the garden, now flows directly from God’s throne, for the benefit of everyone. The tree of life is there for all to enjoy again. The “twelve crops of fruit” which it produces each year bring abundant life, for ever, to the citizens, and its leaves bring healing from the curse resulting from all that went wrong in the garden.
This is a wonderful picture of God’s new heaven and earth, when the paradise of Eden and the beauty of all creation will be restored, and the relationship between God and humankind will be renewed, so that everything is once again the way God intended it to be. It is the fulfilment of what Paul said in Romans (8: 21-22): “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”.
That is truly something to look forward to. It also makes me think that I shall not have to live in a city after all!