A. THE GREAT ANNOUNCEMENTS: 21:1-4
1. New heaven and earth
In 20:11 John sees a "great white throne and him who was seated on it." This introduces what is often called The Great White Throne Judgment or the Final Judgment. As an aside, it is mentioned that "From his presence earth and sky [or heaven] fled away, and no place was found for them." Now, in 21:1 this is followed up by "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more." We should probably connect this with verse 21:5, in which the Lord says "...I am making all things new." It is of no consequence whether it is understood that God has fashioned a brand new universe or reconditioned the present one. (Ladd, 276) It seems significant that, with the notation that the "sea was no more," the old earth loses a huge symbol "of the dark, mysterious, and treacherous" (Ladd, 276). And, just as the sea is gone, other treacherous powers are removed so that the earth can keep the old framework that is cleansed and renewed.
2. New Jerusalem
John jumps immediately to one feature of this new creation in 21:2--the New Jerusalem. The centrality of this holy city to the new earth is reflected by the fact that, in the description of the new state of things, 24 of 32 verses are centered on the New Jerusalem. I shall discuss the New Jerusalem in another post that will focus on those 24 verses.
3. God dwells with people
He returns to the more general discussion in verses 21:3-4. Those verses contain a most solemn declaration: "the dwelling place of God is with man [as in ESV--"humanity" would also be appropriate]." In John 1:14 another remarkable declaration is made: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." This verse follows up the amazing description of the Word in John 1:1-4: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God..." The Logos (Word) of God, who is elsewhere described as the "only Son" [or "only begotten Son"], joined the human race in the person of the son of Mary and grew up to be known as Jesus of Nazareth. This person was God Himself dwelling among us, fully God and fully human. By accomplishing his mission in obedience to the Father (see Philippians 2:5-11), Jesus made salvation available to all who believe (see Luke 19:10, John 1:12-13, 3:16). This salvation begins with living water within (John 4:14) and culminates in a river of life flowing from the throne in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1).
A key element of this salvation is eternal fellowship with God. It begins, just as the salvation story began, veiled in flesh: "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (John 14:23) So, we can enjoy, in this present order, the presence of God within us. The salvation culminates with this powerful statement: "...the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." (Revelation 21:3) The experience of God within our heart now becomes the face-to-face experience of God.
This new relationship with God is described as: "He will dwell with them, and they will be his people." (Revelation 21:3b) Although this does not have a dramatic ring to it, this is an important component of the new order of things.
4. End of: tears, death, mourning, crying, pain; former things gone
One result of this fellowship with God is that God will comfort us and end all the "negative" factors of our lives. This is summarized in Revelation 21:4:
*The end of tears
*The end of death
*The end of mourning
*The end of crying
*The end of pain
*The end of all the "former things"
Even in the present order of things, God is the "God of all comfort." (II Corinthians 1:3) The vision of the new order of things is that God will complete his work of comfort. Whereas we at present continue to deal with affliction (see II Corinthians 1:3-7), someday God will wipe out all of the afflictions and bring us into a new creation that is free of affliction and filled with comfort.
The comment at the end of verse 21:4 is that the "former things have passed away." In I Corinthians 15:24-26, Paul explains: "Then comes the end, when he [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." What a list the "former things" would make! We could name a few: poverty, prejudice, hate, violence, cheating, lying, stealing, drunkenness, abuse, suicide, perversion, disease, drought, famine, mental illness, ignorance, pride, greed--you get the idea. All those will be gone. Jesus will destroy all those enemies that weigh people down and bring them tears and pain and fear and that complicate their lives. They will be absent from the new order and God will fill up our lives with his own presence.
B. THE ALPHA AND OMEGA: 21:5-8
1. Makes all things new
Verses 21:3-4 are announcements from an anonymous voice from "the throne." In 4:2, John has been transported to heaven and there he sees a throne "with one seated on the throne." From this point on, a major person in the book is the "one seated [or who sits] on the throne": see 4:9, 4:10, 5:1, 5:7, 5:13,6:16, 7:10, 7:15, 19:4, 21:5. In 21:5, the one who is seated on the throne begins to make announcements. The announcements of the voice from the throne are just as significant, but now we have a personal, "hands-on" sense of what God is doing.
Just as "the former things have passed away" (verse 21:4), now God announces that he is "making all things new." We remember the statement in II Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." That new creation takes place right in the midst of the present order of existence. So, in a sense, God's creative acts in the future will allow the whole creation to "catch up" with what he has already done in us through our redemption in Christ. It is also true that, not only will God make things new in the future, God is, at the present time, "making all things new." The verb is in the present tense. The present tense in Greek is "progressive," which means that it, usually, describes action that is ongoing. God is in the process, even today, of making things new.
We should pause and reflect on that last statement. In what sense is God making things new? I should add that the wording could be translated: "I am doing all-new things." The word translated "making" is quite commonly translated "doing." So, right beside the "former things," God is doing new things. God is sending people who have never been called before into mission fields that have never been traversed before. God is preaching the gospel to people who have never heard or preaching in ways that have never been heard. God is confronting evil in ways that have not been used before. The old gospel hymn "I Love to Tell the Story," by Katherine Hankey, says: "And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, 'twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long." So, the old story gets told with fresh joy and in new, imaginative ways again and again. So, God constantly does new things and creates new things and makes old things become new and fresh. This aspect of God's work is an important expression of his redemption.
The one who sits on the throne adds: "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." There is a common expression: "Write it down." I don't know if that expression came from this verse, but the verse and the old saying express a certain truth: that which is significant should be recorded. That God is making all things new should be on record. For God is not an old-fogey God. God is not trite or boring or repetitious. God is constantly out in front of us, making exciting new things. And when we come to the new heaven and earth, we will be astounded at the freshness of what God is doing.
Not only is God's statement that he is making all things new "trustworthy and true," but also the statements that follow are "trustworthy and true." "Trustworthy" translates the word "pistos," which is the adjective form of the word for "faith." There is also a verb form of the word. So we have "believe" or "have faith in" (verb), or "faith," "belief" (noun), or "faithful," "trustworthy," "believing" (adjective). So the statements from God--what has preceded and what follows--are trustworthy--worthy of being believed and relied upon. And, closely allied with that description is the fact that they are "true." God always conveys truth to us. He has confirmed and demonstrated his truthfulness and reliability in the experiences of his followers throughout the centuries.
Now, we should examine the messages from God that follow this statement of God's truthfulness.
2. "It is done!"
First, God says, "It is done!" (21:6a) The exclamation point, of course, is an editorial addition, since Greek did not have punctuation marks. The verb is a very common one that has a large range of meanings. The following meanings are from the very slim Greek dictionary that I consult regularly: "become, be; happen, take place, arise...come into being, be born or created; be done (of things), become something (of persons); come, go...appear..." Notice that "come into being" is central to the meaning. So, the meanings "happen, take place" come out of the idea of becoming. If an accident "happens," it has "come into being." The following are translations (thanks to Bible Gateway) of the latter part of Luke 2:15 (the translation of the verb in question):
Young's Literal Translation: "and see this thing that HATH COME TO PASS..."
King James Version: "and see this thing which IS COME TO PASS..."
English Standard Version: "and see this thing that HAS HAPPENED..."
New American Standard Version: "and see this thing that HAS HAPPENED..."
New International Version: "and see this thing that HAS HAPPENED..."
New Revised Standard Version: "and see this thing that HAS TAKEN PLACE..."
The statement in Revelation 21:6 uses the perfect tense. This Greek tense usually refers to "a present state which has resulted from a past action. The present state is a continuing state; the past action is a completed action. Therefore the perfect combines linear and punctiliar action." (Brooks and Winbery, 104) To expand the idea, the simple, one-word sentence could be translated: "It has been completed so that it may always continue to be in the present time." What is "it"? To answer would be speculative, but, in the light of what follows, I believe "it" is the entire redemptive program of God. God has completed that program.
3. Beginning and end
The Lord God now announces: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." It perhaps is no accident that the next to the last chapter of the last book in the Bible makes this announcement. If one surveys the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we recognize that God is the beginning--the creator of the universe--and the end--the one who has brought the enterprise of salvation to its conclusion. But we must also recognize that this statement--that God is the beginning and the end--is not only a statement of what God has done, but also a statement of who God is. God is the source of all things, the origin of existence itself. And God is also the goal of all things. All things find their completion in him. Finally, keeping in mind that the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet are used to express these concepts, we recognize that God is also everything in between the beginning and the end. Some like to advertize their service as "from A to Z," by which they mean that they expertly cover all aspects of their particular service. So, they take care of "ALL your plumbing needs--from A to Z." So, God is involved in every aspect of our lives--from A to Z, and he fills up our lives from beginning to end.
4. Water of life for the thirsty
Now, the Lord extends an invitation. It is the same invitation that was given to the woman at the well in John 4:10-14--to drink of the water of life. This is the first of three mentions of the water of life in these last two chapters (Revelation 21:6, 22:1, 22:17). Water is essential for life. Water is a large proportion of most organisms. When I taught biology, we would look with microscopes at cells of plants that had adequate water and see them expanded like balloons inside their walls. One could see the difference in a celery plant that drooped when it was deprived of water and stiffened with adequate water. Water is the medium within cells where essential chemical reactions take place. The need for water to sustain life is a fundamental principle. But there is another water that human life thirsts for. The woman at the well had searched for that water in the relationships she had with men, but she always ended thirsting for life-giving water. (John 4, see especially 4:7-26) Jesus promised: "Everyone who drinks of this water [from an ordinary well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13b-14) Now, the Lord God returns to that theme in these final words of the Bible and promises: "To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment." (Revelation 21:6c) Note the connection of this promise to the declaration that God--in Jesus--is the "Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." (21:6b) Not only for all humankind, not only in the big picture of God's redemption project, but also in the individual life and of the person who needs salvation, God is the Alpha and Omega who gives the life-giving water of salvation. For the opioid addict, the wealthy banker, the busy mother, the overwhelmed college student, the Middle East terrorist, the communist in North Korea--for every individual on the planet, God offers the water of life.
What is this life he gives? I briefly summarize as follows. It is the forgiveness of a sinner from a righteous and holy God. It is the reconciliation of a rebellious human with a loving Father God. It is the healing and restoration of a broken soul whose life has been wasted. It is the adoption of a lonely heart into the family of God. It is the intimate presence of the Trinity through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is the resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit enabling one to fulfill God's purposes for one's life. It the life that death cannot end, but that takes one to heaven and will raise the body into resurrection life. It is absolutely free, but cost the life of Jesus as he died on the cross for our sins. It is a life filled with blessing, hope, joy, and peace. It is in the here and now but has the quality of eternity, for "eternal life" describes not just how long it lasts but what the quality of that life is. Without it, life is as limp as a stalk of celery needing water; with it, life is fully abundant. God extends this invitation to all of us.
5. The conqueror's heritage
Verse 21:7 takes a bit of a turn: "The one who conquers will have this heritage..." The Greek uses a verbal phrase rather than a noun: "will receive these things." The verb "receive" is related to two nouns: "property" and "heir." So, the verb is close to the idea of "inherit." So, God is promising the "water of life" as a heritage to the "one who conquers." He also promises a deep "family" relationship: "I will be his God and he will be my son." We could interpret it: He will be a son of God. See John 1:12-13.
The verb "conquer" or some variant is used 16 times in Revelation. I shall mostly focus on those that deal with the Christian as conqueror. It is used in Revelation 2 and 3 in the letters to the churches. In each letter, there is a word to "the one who conquers." (2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26-28, 3:5, 3:12, 3:21) In the cases of some the churches, the churches are in very poor spiritual condition, yet, in every case, there is a promise to "the one who conquers." I believe that this is saying to the individual: "even though you may be in a very destructive spiritual environment, if you can conquer the effects of that situation at least for yourself, then I have this promise for you." The promises are the following:
*To eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God (2:7--church at Ephesus)
*Not to be hurt by the second death (2:11--church at Smyrna)
*hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it (2:17--church at Pergamum)
*authority over the nations...to rule them with a rod of iron...and the morning star (2:26-28--church at Thyatira)
*to be clothed in white garments and never to have his name blotted out of the book of life and Jesus will confess his name before his Father and his angels (3:5--church at Sardis)
*to make him a pillar in the temple of God and to have the name of God written on him and the name of the city of God and Jesus' own new name (3:12--church at Philadelphia
*to sit with Jesus on his throne (3:21--church at Laodicea)
Notice that these promises are given separately to the individuals of different churches, but they are promises that all will share. Notice also how much of the future is incorporated into these promises. This is true even though they are also promises for the present life, at least in some cases. Thus, the tree of life is a future entity, but we receive that life even today, even as we eat the hidden manna and have authority over the nations and have God's name written on us and are seated with Jesus on his throne (see, for example, Ephesians 2:6).
What does it mean to conquer? If we look at the context of these verses, we see, as I mentioned, churches that are struggling to be obedient and worthy churches. They are being reprimanded, exhorted, and warned. For example, the church at Ephesus is described as having "abandoned the love you had at first." Since love is the defining Christian quality, this is a very serious charge. Christ exhorts them to "remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first." He warns that, if they do not respond in this way, he will "remove your lampstand from its place..." The lampstands of the churches are mentioned in 1:12 and explained as representing the seven churches (1:20). So, for Christ to remove the lampstand would be tantamount to removing the church as a legitimate body of Christ. It may continue a physical presence, but it no longer would be a true church in the eyes of Jesus.
In the midst of this situation of Ephesus, Jesus gives a promise to the one who conquers. And so he does with the six churches. We may classify some of these churches as "better" than Ephesus, but none of the churches can be thought of as great churches that we want as models for our own local church. In the midst of all of these struggling churches, Jesus believes there will be those who conquer. King James Version uses the word "overcome." Although it is old-fashioned, it may be a more vivid word for us. Jesus is encouraging whoever can hear him (see 2:7, 2:11, etc.) to get "on top of the situation," not to allow it to drag one down but to seek to live above one's environment. This is not, I believe, saying to ignore the situation, but rather to be a leader and to be influential in turning things around. And, even if the church does not turn around, Jesus is calling on the individual to live well--to love, to help people, to keep praying, to remind people of the gospel and the messages found in the Scriptures. In short, to be "a good Christian" in the midst of a bad environment. Obviously, in some cases--for example in urban areas--there may be an option to "move on"--to leave a toxic environment and find another church that is healthy. Whatever to "conquer" may mean in a particular situation, Jesus is giving two messages: he is saying he is aware of the spiritual condition of a church and he is also aware of the spiritual condition of the individuals within that church. He is watching to see the response of the whole church and the responses of the individuals.
Christians not only have the spiritual environment of their churches to contend with. They also have "the world"--the non-Christian environment--that has a powerful impact on their lives. Some of the letters to the churches depict what churches and individual Christians were faced with at the time of the writing of Revelation. For example Christians in Smyrna were facing imprisonment (2:10). In Pergamum a man named Antipas was killed for his Christian witness (2:13).
In Revelation there is also a prediction of persecution in the last days. At least physically, the "world," especially the empire of the Beast, will be the conqueror (see 11:7 and 13:7). However, Christians also are depicted as the conquerors. In 12:11 the "brothers" are said to have "conquered him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death." Note the three primary weapons that conquer the devil: the redemption that comes through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the testimony of Christians about Jesus, and the determination of Christians that they will prefer death to compromise with the devil. Notice also that it is really Jesus who is the conqueror. As we put our trust in him, we participate in his victory. Another approach to the concept of conquering is in Paul's discussion of the "whole armor of God" that is described in Ephesians 6:13-18: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and Spirit-led prayer.
Christians have a calling: to be conquerors. The first step toward conquering is the momentous decision to be a Christian. As we make that decision, we step into the victory that Christ has already won. As we continue to follow Jesus, we experience the ongoing need to be conquerors. Sometimes that means conquering our own sinful desires, our own fears, our own bad attitudes. Sometimes it means conquering a toxic environment within a church. Sometimes it means conquering the anti-Christ environment of the culture we find ourselves in. Whatever our situation, we are designated to be conquerors, and Christ promises rich blessings to the one who is victorious.
6. The destiny of the evil ones: Lake of Fire
"BUT": There is also a warning. (Revelation 21:8) To those who do not heed the word of God, to those who refuse to repent and to trust Jesus, God has no choice. This warning is issued to a list of people that God puts together--we would not necessarily put this group together as God as done. However, we would be wise to notice the list as it is drawn up. Note the SECOND type on the list are the "faithless." This is often translated "unbelieving" or "unbeliever." These are people that have not believed the gospel of Christ and been saved.
The FIRST on the list are the "cowardly." This seems strange, but it really makes good sense. The only other use of this word elsewhere is the incident in which Jesus calmed the storm. Jesus said to the disciples: "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" (Matthew 8:26, parallel in Mark 4:40) So, "afraid" or "cowardly" really is a condition brought on by lack of faith! In the context of describing the promises to those who conquer, it makes sense that this condition--the cowardice that comes from unbelief--would be listed first.
There follows the conditions of unbelievers. There are the "detestable." These are those who have fallen so deeply into sin (no matter how respectable they seem) that they are repugnant to God. There follow "murderers, sexually immoral" and so forth. Now the lesson of chapter 20:11-15 is repeated: all of these wind up in the "lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."
20th and 21st century evangelicals have emphasized the need to believe the gospel and to have one's name written in the Book of Life. In Revelation 20:15, this is the all-encompassing category of those who end up in the Lake of Fire. However, there is a tendency to ignore the earlier examination in the judgment: "And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done." (Revelation 20:12c) Yes, of course, faith in Christ is the deciding factor in determining salvation. Of course, having one's name written in the Book of Life is the deciding factor in determing salvation. But it is also important to recognize that people who do not have faith are "cowardly..detestable...murderers...sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolators...liars..." Some have kept their noses relatively clean. Some have a veneer of respectability. Some even may not have any overt sins to speak of. Yet, they have some stuff written in those books that Jesus is going to open. And they will be reminded of attitudes, secret desires, and small sins in the world's eyes but dark and ugly and monstrous in their own eyes--and in the eyes of God. Those sins will be recorded and they will be judged for those sins as well as the fact that they have rejected Jesus as their Savior. And their name will not be in the Book of Life and they will be thrown into the Lake of Fire and not receive that inheritance that God has in store for the Christian--for the one who has conquered through faith in Jesus.
Brooks, James A. and Carlton L. Winbery. Syntax of New Testament Greek. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979.
Crossway. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Il: Crossway, a division of Good News Publishers, 2001.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.