Revelation 21 – I will be your God and you will be my people.

The writer of Revelation presents the consummation of redemptive history as embodied in the coming of the new Jerusalem, which is an apocalyptic symbol for the people of God. The covenant promise given throughout Scripture – “I will be your God and you will be my people” – is ultimately fulfilled in the renewed and glorified creation of the new heaven and the new earth as they are ultimately embodied in personal communion with God.

Revelation 21 marks the concluding section of the book, and verses 1-8 are the prologue to the conclusion. The author (who names himself John) uses the image of the New Jerusalem as an embodiment of the perfected community, building thus a bridge from the “now” of the Christian suffering and struggle to the eschatological future announced in the Spirit’s promises for the victorious.[1] Whereas in 20:12-15 judgment follows cosmic destruction, in 21:1ff the new creation follows the prior cosmic dissolution in order to replace the old order. At the beginning of the book, chapters 1-3 focused on the churches’ weakness throughout the old age, but here John foresees the church in its perfected eternal state.[2]

Revelation 21:1-8 has two subordinate units of text: the first section is comprised of verses 1-4, presenting an angelic speech from the throne, and the second section of verses 5-8, presenting a speech from God seated on his throne.[3] Verses 1-4 are framed by parallels: in verse 1, John tells us of the first (πρῶτος) heaven and the first (πρώτη) earth which passed away (ἀπῆλθαν) and the sea that is no longer (οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι); in verse 4, he speaks of the death that is no longer (οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι, along with mourning, crying and pain) and the former things (πρῶτα) that passed away (ἀπῆλθαν). There is a chiastic structure in verses 1-5a, as follows:

a. new (καινὸν) heaven and the new (καινήν) earth (v. 1a)

           b. first (πρώτη) heaven, earth, and sea have passed away (ἀπῆλθαν) (v. 1b)

                        c. the sea exists no longer (οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι) (v. 1b)

                                    d. the holy city descends from heaven (v.2)

                                    d’. God dwells with his people (vv. 3-4a)

                        c’. death exists no longer (οὐκ ἔσται ἔτι) (v. 4b)

            b’. former things (τὰ πρῶτα) have passed away (ἀπῆλθαν) (v. 4b)

a’. God creates everything new (καινὰ) (v. 5a)

If this is a correct understanding of the writers’ intent, there is a focus on the importance of the descent of the holy city. The new Jerusalem descending from heaven points directly to God’s consummated presence with his people, and is the ultimate telos of redemptive history.

The term νύμφην, “bride,” is used of the Church here and in 21:9 and 22:17, but not elsewhere in early Christian literature. The adornment of the bride is a clear antithesis to the adornment of the whore Babylon (17:4).[5] The dwelling of God is with his people; this is an allusion to a number of Old Testament passages that use the word מִשְׁכָּנִי֙ as God’s description of his dwelling place with his people: Ezekiel 37:27 states that “My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people;” this is also seen in Lev. 26:11-12, Zech. 2:10-11, Ps. 46:4, Ezek. 43:7, and especially in the covenant formula of Exodus 29:45-46 (“I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God.”) and Jer. 31:33.

The new Jerusalem is not so much a place, but primarily a people. It is a symbol of the bride, the Church – the precious community of individuals who have fellowship with God. It is a real encounter with the living Christ. The marriage of Christ to the church illustrates the complete and perfect fulfillment of the covenant promise found throughout Scripture (cf. Gen 17:7; Jer. 31:33; Rom. 4:22; 2 Cor. 6:16). The marriage of the Lamb and the new Jerusalem provides intimate and abiding fellowship with God.[6] Tears of persecution, of misfortune, of sympathy, of regret, of disappointment, of bereavement – God will dry them all.[7] Final redemption from the nations and oppression, as well as final salvation in kingship and priesthood, is only possible when God through Christ has assumed the power and kingship of a new world, where death no longer exists. Fully realized redemption and salvation presupposes not only the deliverance of individual persons, but also of the whole world.[8]

What God brings into being is so radically new that the old heaven and the old earth cannot contain it. That newness is nothing less than the presence of God as announced from the throne (21:3). Surely, God’s presence with his people will not be entirely new, having been clearly asserted in relation to his present faithfulness both in the Old and New testaments; in the incarnation of Christ, that presence became palpable. Here, however, this presence is consummated. The establishment of God’s residence with human beings coincides with the manifestation of the Church as the new Jerusalem, which is the identity of the Church as the people of God – claimed, lived with, worked on, and worked through by the One who remakes both heaven and earth.[9]

What the city is, the saints will be – and what they will be is the opposite of what they suffer under the beast. There are four ways in which this city will be the opposite, as presented in this pericope: the city is holy – there will be no sin in it (cf. 21:8). The city will also be new – the saints will belong to the new heaven and the new earth (cf. v. 21:1; 7). The city will be heavenly – it will descend out of heaven from God (21:2). Finally, the city will be joyous – sheer happiness will characterize it, a happiness unadulterated by tears, pain, or death (cf. 21:4).[10]

When the New Jerusalem descends, in a real sense, heaven will be on earth. There is a popular idea (more Greek than biblical) that the redeemed will spend their lives in the sky; Scripture indicates, however, that man’s ultimate destiny is not ethereal, but earthly in a sense – believers will spend eternity on a new earth.[11] God in Christ cohabitates with the church on earth as a husband and his wife. John highlights this with the Ἰδοὺ of verses 3 and 5: God declares the adventing church to be homemaker for God with men in intimate relationship, with tangible evidence that all alienation is over.[12]

The book has a comforting message to its audience – not only the original audience that was experiencing persecution, but also the persecuted church throughout the ages. There is a comforting newness in the coming heaven and earth, contrasting with the suffering and pain of the present experience of heaven and earth. All the preceding chapters of Revelation complete that contrast.[13] The heaven and the earth will be gloriously renewed by God’s ultimate intervention upon the cosmos and not only will we be going to heaven, but heaven will, as it were, come down to us; that is, the perfection of heaven will be found throughout God’s gloriously rejuvenated universe. This is the hope of the saints.

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation – Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 52.

[2] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: W. Eerdmans, 1999), 1039.

[3] David E. Aune, The Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 52c – Revelation 17-22 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 1113.

[5] Aune, 1122.

[6] Sam Hamstra, Jr. “An Idealist View of Revelation,” Four Views on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 124-125.

[7] David J. MacLeod, “The Seventh ‘Last Thing:’ The New Heaven and the New Earth (Rev. 21:1-8),” Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (no. 618 O-D 2000): 446.

[8] Fiorenza, 76.

[9] Rudolph W. Raber, “Revelation 21:1-8,” Interpretation 40 (1986): 298.

[10] Robert Gundry, “The New Jerusalem – People as Place, not Place for People,” Novum Testamentum XXIX. 3 (1987): 257.

[11] MacLeod, 444.

[12] Raber, 299-300.

[13] Cloete, G. D. and D. J. Smith. “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth, for the First … Were Passed Away (Revelation 21:1-8),” Journal of Theology of Southern Africa 81 (D 1992), 62.

3 comments on “Revelation 21 – I will be your God and you will be my people.

  1. Excellent post! The parallelism between the “sea” existing no longer and “death” existing no longer brings to mind the Homeric “wine-dark sea,” which for Homer always represents the destructive forces of chaos and death (which is why it would have been so awful for Odysseus to have perished at sea, away from home and kingdom). Death, like the sea, threatens to swallow us up, but is itself swallowed up in victory.

  2. That’s true Thomas. Thank you for the Homeric reference. I hadn’t even thought about that. I need to re-read the Odyssey.

    The Old Testament is also full of imagery connecting sea and death. Here’s from Jonah:

    For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
    all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
    Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
    yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
    The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
    weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
    I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
    yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O LORD my God.

    (Jonah 2:3-6)

  3. True! I think the “wine dark sea” was a common Mediterranean metaphor for death.

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