How do you encourage a church bedevilled by heresy or seduced by the world or threatened by persecution to stand firm in faith? One answer is to give it the book of Revelation.
Couched in the vivid often bizarre imagery of Revelation that may enthral or chill lie truths that when received create a steely faith. We discover afresh the greatness of God and Christ. In the shifting sands of time both are eternal and both are sovereign over history. Each is stronger than any enemy we may face. History is not out of control. Chaos may abound on earth but there is a sea of tranquil glass in heaven before God’s throne; God is neither dismayed nor alarmed by events on earth… he controls them. The course of history is in the more than capable hands of the Lion of Judah, the triumphant Lamb, and is being steered to its final destiny. It is a destiny where all evil opposition to God will be destroyed… we should neither be intimidated nor beguiled by evil. Moreover, eternal glory awaits all who follow the Lamb to the end. And what glory it is. John describes it for us in Chs 21, 22 of his letter. As with other parts of the book John draws heavily from OT Scripture. The faith of God’s NT church has deep roots in the OT. The OT traces saving faith to the beginning of time and in various ways points to the climax of history about which John writes. Indeed Revelation brings the themes of both the OT and NT to their conclusion in both judgement and salvation.
And so John marinates his prophecy in OT language, images and allusions as he gives what proves to be the final inscripturated prophecy. The prophecy is not in fact John’s but Jesus Christ’s, which he gave ‘to show his servants what must soon take place’. With the first coming of Jesus the ‘last days’ that once lay far in the future (Dan 2:28-30, 8:18-27) arrived. His arrival triggered the events of the End. Upon the church the climax of the ages has come and the events the OT anticipated and which John records have already begun.
I want to reflect a little on John’s final vision. It describes the final fully realised salvation of his people when God dwells among his people in a renewed creation. It is an encouragement to perseverance in difficult days. Today there may be suffering but tomorrow there is an eternal weight of glory.
Firstly, I will assume that when we read the description of the new heavens and new earth and the new Jerusalem in ch 21:1- 22:5 we are reading about the final consummation of God’s salvation in a renewed creation (though the description of the New Jerusalem may apply also to the millennial kingdom).
Secondly, my understanding when reading Revelation is that a great deal in the book is symbolic. The use of the word ‘signify’ (ESV ‘show’) in verse one points in this direction as does the description of the book as a ‘revelation’ or ‘apocalypse’; apocalyptic literature is generally recognised to be symbolic. John is seeing visions not videos. He is seeing representations of reality and not the reality itself. Truth is presented in analogy.
The point about apocalyptic symbolism is it helps us ‘see’ and even ‘feel’ a reality that we could not otherwise grasp. The symbol, expressed in the words and cultural experiences of the writer convey a reality beyond his world of words and cultural experience. Thus symbolism conveys the unknown in the language of what is known. It comes as any reader knows with great rhetorical power and potency. It’s source is mainly the OT where God created various kinds of institutions that would serve as a symbol or model for the realities of a new heavens and new earth. From the past we learn about the future.
And so, when we come to the description of the new heavens and new earth and the new Jerusalem in Ch 21:1-22:5 (the last vision of the book) we know we are often looking at symbolic representations of reality. The symbolism, however, is highly evocative. In some instances we need not be particularly familiar with the OT background from which it draws to grasp the message being conveyed. For example, the image of a bride is readily understood. John’s description of a city made of solid gold, with walls of crystal clear jasper resting on precious stones, and pearl gates ever open in welcome will convey to most people that the city is magnificent and sublime. We are looking at a city from another world and its light is drawing us to it.
Yet, while like poetry, John’s description is intrinsically evocative, nevertheless, also like poetry, its depth of meaning yields to study. We must grapple with the images. Poetry is not destroyed by being analysed and deconstructed rather it is enhanced as the investigation brings the reader deeper understanding. In fact some images are only clear when their background is investigated. Why is the city cubic? Here OT passages in particular need to be quarried for the meaning of John’s vision to be discovered (Prov 25:2) though we should not forget that the NT also sheds light on the descriptions.
The OT allusions present problems for many of us have a poor understanding of the OT. I confess I am one. By God’s grace commentaries and reference tools (the margin references in a good reference Bible) help source the image John employs. Although no substitute for a good personal knowledge I, for one, am grateful for their help.
With these few introductory reflections in place we can look a little at John’s final vision that projects into the future to a new heavens and a new earth and the glories and joys that God has planned for those who are thirsty and drink from God’s spring of living water… for those who persevere in faith overcoming all obstacles in their desire to reach the Celestial city and know God in a deeper and more glorious way than ever before.