The scenes of judgement and destruction in the previous chapter are countered with scenes of creation and blessing in chapter 21. John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). These words echo the prophecies of Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22 about God creating a future new heaven and a new earth.
Speaking from his heavenly throne God declares, “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5). The Greek word used here for new, ‘kainos’ usually indicates newness in terms of quality, not time, meaning ‘that which is new or recent and hence superior to that which is old.’ Gregory Beale notes, “Despite the discontinuities, the new cosmos will be an identifiable counterpart to the old cosmos and a renewal of it, just as the body will be raised without losing its former identity.” The new creation will be like the resurrection of the dead. Normally the body becomes corrupt in death and passes away, but in spite of this, our new resurrected body will still have continuity with our original body. God will make all things, new — emphasizing a kind of re-creation by which the old is transformed into the new.
In this tension between continuity and discontinuity, John tells us that the “former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (21:1). He sees a holy city, a New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (21:2). The central feature of this new reality is found in God’s declaration from the throne, “Behold, God’s dwelling [Greek skn] is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]” (21:3).
The mention of God’s dwelling has profound Old Testament connotations. In Leviticus God declares, “I will set my tabernacle [Hebrew, mishkan] in your midst, and will not loathe you. Ever present in your midst, I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). The prophet Ezekiel echoes this, “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them. I will multiply them and put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling [mishkan] shall be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezekiel 37:26–27). The Greek word skn was the ideal translation of the Hebrew mishkan because in later Jewish usage the verb shakan became associated with the Shekinah or presence of God among his people. Normally God’s dwelling is associated with the tabernacle or temple but now John declares, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). This is a work of God that begins in the incarnation, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling [Greek, skn] among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The most fundamental truth about eternity involves both the absence of powers which oppose God and diminish life and the eternal presence of God himself who gives life. Death or mourning, wailing or pain (21:4) have passed away and God’s dwelling is now eternally with his people. In firm contrast with worldly Babylon (Revelation 18) the New Jerusalem is “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2) who calls the nations to drink from the water of life and to be healed with the leaves of the tree of life (22:1-5).
Surely G. B. Caird is correct that the description of the heavenly city “in magnitude, symmetry, solidity and splendor transcends the power of man to envisage.” The city is described as a perfect cube measuring 12,000 stadia on each side (21:16) or roughly 1500 miles square. This would cover the inhabited Mediterranean world of John’s time, or in modern terms half of the western United States. The city is described as constructed with layers of precious gems, streets of gold, and pearly gates (21:21).
The commonly held picture of entering heaven through a single set of pearly gates with Saint Peter as the gate keeper, is challenged by the text in at least three ways. First, there are twelve gates into the city, three on each side. John emphasizes that the city can be easily entered from any direction. Secondly, we are told that the gates are open day and night and are never shut (21:25). The gates are not to keep the nations out, but to provide a way to approach God. Those who approach the heavenly city have already faced the earlier judgment (18:12) and have been found worthy. Although the names of all twelve apostles are inscribed on the city’s foundations (21:14) there is no suggestion that Saint Peter is the gatekeeper.
The scope of holiness has expanded to include all that is capable of being offered to God. The continuity with this present life is highlighted by John’s note that “the kings of the earth will bring” (21:24) “the treasure and wealth of the nations” into the heavenly city (21:26). In Greek this is literally the glory and honor of the nations. This phrase has a double meaning of wealthy gifts and fame and adoration. John reminds the reader that “nothing unclean will enter” the heavenly city but clearly there is still some continuity between this life and the next which relates to the now universal scope of God’s holiness. By virtue of our baptism we are each called to be Christ in the midst of world and to bring God’s holiness to bear on our daily lives and occupations.
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.