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Then and Now


Revelation 21:1-8
May 23, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 18:55 in the audio file.



Series: Just Conquer #59

Introduction

What is your greatest longing? What comes to your mind when you imagine the best future you can? For most of us I’m assuming that the Bible animates most of that picture, as it should. We have a “scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”). The future will also only be better for a certain sort of person.

The future includes a great reckoning. All those who have done wrong—by perfect God’s standards and according to His omniscient records—will be judged by their works. All those who’ve done wrong and have not been redeemed by the Lamb will stand before the great white throne and be sentenced to the second death, to eternity in the lake of fire. This is the final state for every conscious being in the universe who will not love and be loyal to Jesus Christ.

All those who do trust and serve Jesus anticipate (and hasten 2 Peter 3:12) that day of judgment because then Jesus’ name will be exalted above all, and also our testimony for Jesus’ name and whatever suffering we endured will be finished and rewarded. The righteous look forward to the reign of righteousness that Jesus will establish. But our desire that every wrong will be acknowledged and punished is not the ultimate point. There is more longing than for justice, even more than longing for the end of our troubles. Our longing is to be home with God.

Revelation 21 begins to describe what that will be like. From Revelation 21:1 through 22:5 John gives perhaps the most detailed vision of “heaven,” of eternal life, found anywhere in Scripture. Our experiences now make it difficult to conceive of the positives (Peter has a similar list of what our inheritance is not in 1 Peter 1:4). But while all things will be new, they will not be entirely disconnected from now.

Before we get to seeing these glories, I admit I was surprised to learn that the general agreement among Bible readers about the final judgment does not carry over into chapter 21. I thought we were mostly back on the same page, with judgment and followed by the new heaven and new earth still in the future. It turns out that some believe that chapter 21 takes us back to the first century and that the new is actually coming now. Here is just one example (from someone I have otherwise learned a lot):

“I take the first heavens and earth as the Judaic aeon and the new heavens and earth as the Christian aeon, and these two aeons overlapped—the latter beginning at Pentecost, and the former ending with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70…. Church history is the time it takes for this bride to walk down the aisle.” (Douglas Wilson, When the Man Comes Around)

So,

“The process of world evangelization is the process by which God is making all things new, which is the declaration He makes in this passage.” (ibid.)

This is not how I believe the new is connected to the now; the new is not now but still then.

The language in these verses, even as the images connect with other prophetic visions from the OT and earlier in the NT, reveals a climactic and cataclysmic remaking, not a gradual and generational remodel. This is even quicker than the original six-day creation, and certainly not thousands of years of gospelistic-evolutionary development on earth.

There are two key points in these two paragraphs, the Then (verses 1-4) and the Now (verses 5-8).

The Then (verses 1-4)

In the previous paragraph John saw “earth and sky” flee away from God’s presence as men were called to the judgment seat. Now John describes the replacement. And I saw heaven-a new kind, and earth-a new one. For the first heaven and the first earth went away and the sea is not any longer (verse 1).

The Bible opens with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The creation story is about the universe, visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16), and was creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. That “heaven” didn’t stand for a system nor did “earth.” It was space, place, dirt, and water, thrones and dominions, all things. So here is the new heaven and the new earth, the scene for eternal life. The Lord revealed this purpose even in the Old Testament:

“For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
(Isaiah 65:17)

It is new not merely remodeled, replaced and yet recognizable, and the fulfillment of creation’s longings for freedom from corruption (Romans 8:18-23).

That the sea was no moreis surprising if for no other reason than that our current earth’s surface area is 75% water. But the sea has an unruly, uninhabitable relationship, and has been a source of fear and death to men. Even in Genesis 1:1, when the water did not have any boundaries yet, darkness was over the face of the deep and the earth was tohu va bohu, “without form and void.” This new earth will be different from the start.

The new earth gets a capital city. And I saw the holy city, the Jerusalem-a new one, coming down out of heaven from God. In the second half of verse 2 we will see an additional description, and the metaphor gets mixed. In the first part of the verse is a new Jerusalem called the holy city. While the Lord promised an anointed King who would rule in the old Jerusalem, a promise fulfilled in the Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 20:1-10), even that was not the full and final center for God’s rule. More will be defined and described about the city in verses 9-27, even spilling into chapter 22. The new Jerusalem is only mentioned here and in Revelation 3:12 (even though there is a Jerusalem “above” in Galatians 4:26 and a “heavenly” Jerusalem in Hebrews 12:22).

In the second half of verse 2 the New Jerusalem is not only a place but also people. Without providing a subject change, the city is coming down and having been prepared as a bride, having been adorned for her husband. There are three participles, the the last two are both perfect tense and passive voice. Someone else already prepared/adorned in the past with continuing effect. The city-bride comes to earth.

Isaiah 62:3-5 refers to Israel as a bride, so this bride is all the saints in unity, while also they are peoples, plural (verse 3), from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

That a city could be a woman could be a place and could be a people should not surprise us since chapters 17-18 were about Babylon, the harlot, who was both a city and citizen rebels. This bride is truly glorious and she is holy, in covenant with and faithful to her husband.

A great announcement comes in verses 3-4. It is not by God but about God; God Himself speaks in verse 5. But this voice has authority, and it is not just good news, it is the greatest.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people(s), and God himself will be with them as their God.”

“He Himself, the God, with them, will be!” (αὐτὸς ὁ θεὸς μετʼ αὐτῶν ἔσται)

Is there a better hope? God walked in Eden with Adam and Eve, and it was this intimacy that they lost when they sinned. As God chose a people for Himself in the OT He centered His presence in the temple, but “the holy of holies” was only available to one man one day a year. His glory was the shekinah, the “tabernacled,” which is related to the Greek word for “dwelling” in verse 3 (σκηνώσει). Then God in Jesus “dwelt among men” (John 1:14, using a different form of the same verb) and His glory was displayed. Then the Spirit dwells inside every believer as a guarantee of our eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14, see also 21:7).

But for all of us now, this is by faith. It is real, but it is not now what it will be in the resurrection. To take our current salvation experience as the meaning of Revelation 21, to say that this new earth is among us and coming among us more every day in the church age, is to collapse the promises. His tabernacling among His people on the new earth will be a new experience.

So will the description in verse 4. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not be any longer neither mourning neither wailing neither pain will be any longer, because the first went away.

A fulfillment of Isaiah:

He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears
from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will
take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8 ESV)

Even during the “thousand years” there will be death. There will be less death, with more peace than wars, and lives will be longer. But until the last battle is over and the dead raised to judgment and Death itself cast into the lake of fire, death will be an enemy. Death causes fear. Death is expensive, trying to avoid it even more so. Death brings grief. Even Christians know the pain and suffering related to broken bodies. Then there will be work to do, but the threats will be gone.

The Now (verses 5-8)

Here is a divine application. While John’s vision is of the future, God Himself speaks in a way that encourages and warns us now. It will be unnecessary for those in the resurrection to know these words; they will already be experiencing them.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” This is God’s work, and part of His plan. Also, he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” in reference to the first four verses. It’s not just that John got distracted by the glories of the vision, it’s the attention God wants on this part of the unveiling.

And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” God is the Lord of history, from A to Z, and in between. Every notch on the timeline is His, including the Great Tribulation and Armageddon and the Millennium and new heaven and earth. Past, present, and future belong to Him.

“To the thirsty I will give from the spring of water of life without payment.” This echoes Isaiah 55:1-2. This is the ache of the soul, the heart’s thirst for God like a deer pants for water (Psalm 42:1-2). And God says, Come and drink. Stop slurping dust in broken, empty cisterns (Jeremiah 2:12-13). All this can be yours forever in Him. But it is only in Him, and you must cling to Him.

“The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” For the last time in Revelation we see ὁ νικῶν, the one victory-ing. To just conquer means to hold out for this new earthly glory rather than the first earthly glory.

But the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolators, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake, the one burning with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

It’s quite a list, and it begins with a contrast between the one overcoming and the one underwhelming, the winning one and the running away one, the conqueror and the cowardly. The coward leads the list, an unusual location for him. This, along with the messages to the churches, warns that even among professing believers there is the possibility of compromise and apostasy.

The rest of the vices could be among those in the church, and obviously those outside of it. They are all outside the redeeming work of the Lam. Though they couldn’t save themselves by being the opposite, these evil works will be judged and the end of all is the second death, the eternal separation from God.

Conclusion

Then will be better than now in every way, and also, how we live now matters for then. The kind of people who will be “at home” in the new heaven and new earth, the kind of people who will be “at home” with God dwelling among them, are the people who love fellowship with God now, who believe and rejoice with great joy in Christ by faith. We have been made new creations, and we long for Him to make all things new.

The Apocalypse has aimed here, all of the Bible has aimed here, our hearts—as believers—are aimed here, not as escape but as “the outcome of our faith” (1 Peter 1:9) and when we know fully, face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12); He will be our God and we will receive our inheritance as His sons.

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. (Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)


Charge

In a future day, in the new heaven and new earth, God will wipe away every tear and sin and death will no longer be the rule. But we, as new creations, are the exceptions for now. Be not cowardly but unafraid, be not faithless but loyal to the Lamb, love your neighbors, let no worldly thing have your highest affection, and tell the truth. This is the way of the ones who conquer.

Benediction:

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:11–12, ESV)