New Heavens and a New Earth
When we considered the last few verses of chapter 20 a few weeks ago, we saw that John wrote nothing there about the blessings that God’s judgment brings to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. John skipped this information so that he could he could develop it in much greater detail in chapters 21 and 22, which we’ll start to examine today.
As we work our way through these two chapters, there are two things that I want you to keep in mind.
First, these two chapters ultimately describe the glory that awaits believers in the next life. Only that glory adequately accounts for the absolute perfection found in the imagery John employs. But, as with so much in Revelation, the description of this future blessed state is largely symbolic.
And the second point that I want to make is more often than not overlooked, intentionally neglected or even denied. And that is that the last two chapters of Revelation also describe where the church is today in principle and the direction it’s going by the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God. The book of Hebrews, for example, says that we have already tasted … the powers of the world to come (Heb. 6:5). Those things that we have already tasted and in which we are now progressing will be fully revealed and enjoyed in glory.
Now, let’s look at this.
The New Creation
Verse 1 says, And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
The concept of a coming new creation was first taught by the prophet Isaiah. He wrote, And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (Isa. 51:16). Clearly, the planting of the heavens and so forth was something that would come after Isaiah wrote, since he was charged to prophesy it.
The prophet provided more information about the new creation in chapter 65 of his book. In fact, the first few verses of our text come almost directly from the prophet. Isaiah wrote:
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD (Isa. 65:17–25; cf. 66:22).
You’ll notice that there are perhaps some things in this prophecy that would seem to be true only in glory. For example, Isaiah wrote that no weeping or crying will be heard in the new Jerusalem. Life, in fact, will be so peaceful that the wolf and the lamb, which in the present world are sworn enemies, will feed together. The lion also will cease to be carnivorous. There will no longer be anything that causes hurt or destruction.
But there are other things in this passage that plainly suggest that Isaiah’s new heavens and new earth is not exclusively a picture of heaven. This is especially so in verse 20. Here we learn that people will no longer die prematurely, as when an infant dies in infancy or an old man perishes without having fulfilled his dreams. But they will die nonetheless. Death may be delayed, but it will eventually come. Even the infant, though he may live to be a hundred, will die, and the sinner, who chooses not to walk in the Lord’s ways, will remain under God’s curse. Neither of these scenarios is even possible in heaven. Death itself and all dead men (i.e., unrepentant sinners) meet their end in the lake of fire.
What, then, does John’s vision of a new heavens and new earth symbolize? Based on the words of our text, I believe that it must include at least three things.
First, it represents the new covenant. Hebrews 8:13, referring to Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant, says, In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. In our text the old is already gone. The holy Jerusalem that descends from heaven in verse 2 not only contrasts with the Jerusalem that God destroyed in Revelation 11, but also represents the new covenant community. The promise of the covenant is explicit in verse 3, where John alludes to Genesis 17:8 and Jeremiah 31:33.
Second, John’s vision symbolizes the new condition of those who are in Jesus Christ. Paul, using language similar to what we have in our text, wrote, Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (II Cor. 5:17). This is essentially the promise of the covenant applied to the lives of individual men. In our text, notice that the promise in verse 7 is very similar to the promise in verse 3, but with one very important difference. In verse 3 the promise uses plural pronouns and is general: And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. However, the same promise, as repeated in verse 7 switches to singular pronouns to show that it applies individually, i.e., to each believer: He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.
And third, the new heavens and new earth also have in view the consummate glory of believers. While Isaiah spoke of infants dying at a hundred years of age and sinners still under the curse of sin, the picture given in verse 4 of our text goes further and denies that such things can even exist in the new order. John wrote, And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
There is a sense in which we can say that there is no death for believers even now. Jesus said, And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand (John 10:28). Those who belong to Christ have eternal life now and that will never be taken from them. And yet, physical death is a continuing reality for every man who lives prior to the second coming. Earlier in Revelation John wrote, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth (Rev. 14:13). So, while it’s true that death has been transformed from a curse to a blessing — for believers it’s now only a dying to sin and an entrance into eternal life, it still hurts. Paul says that it stings because of sin (I Cor. 15:55–56). But Revelation looks forward to the day when even that will be gone.
Now, there’s one final point that I want to make before moving on. It has to do with the word translated new in our text. Verse 1 mentions the new heaven and the new earth. Verse 2 speaks of the new Jerusalem. And in verse 5 God says, Behold, I make all things new. Each of these verses and the other passages that I’ve quoted in this study that use the word new (specifically, Heb. 8:13 and II Cor. 5:17) all have exactly the same word.
The Greek language has two words that are translated new. νέος means brand new, fresh out of the box, recently made. It indicates newness of time. For example, this is the word used in the phrase new wine, i.e., wine recently fermented. But καινός, the word found in our text, indicates a newness of quality. It often has indicates that something has been refurbished or renewed, e.g., a refinished piece of furniture. A New Testament example would be new wineskins. Wineskins could only be used once because the alcohol in the wine destroyed the collagen in the skin, which allowed it to expand as the wine continued to ferment. But, you see, it didn’t matter whether the wineskins were brand new or not. They could have been made fifty years ago as long as they were new in quality. They had to have the collagen, without which the skins would explode and the wine would be lost.
Likewise, the new heaven and the earth, the new Jerusalem, the new covenant, and those who are new creatures in Christ are not completely new. That which makes these things what they are is still there, but they have been revitalized with a new qualities. The new heaven and new earth represent a creation that is now willingly subject to its Maker. The new Jerusalem is a church that joyously obeys its Lord. The new covenant is a covenant written on hearts of flesh instead of tablets of stone. And new creatures in Christ are those whose sins have been forgiven by the shed blood of Christ and who have already tasted the powers of the coming age.
Putting the Text in Context
Now, let’s see what all of this means in its context.
In the previous chapter, Christ sat on the great white throne as the judge of all men. According to the end of verse 11, heaven and earth fled away at his sight, and there was no place found for them. Here heaven and earth are metaphors for the creation as it had been in rebellion against God. When time for judgment came, it was no longer possible to pretend that their rebellion would succeed. It was as if the entire cursed creation ran and hid to protect itself from the fury of Christ’s wrath. But all of this was, of course, to no avail. Christ judged the world and consigned every one and every thing that stood against him to unending misery in the fire that cannot be quenched.
But against this background, John saw a new heaven and a new earth, i.e., a creation that was no longer in rebellion against God, a creation that had been redeemed, bought back, ransomed.
Verse 1 also says that there was no more sea. Commentators have expressed all kinds of opinions on this over the years. Most take it literally. There will be no large bodies of water in the new creation. The seas, they say, dried up in the fire that destroyed the old heaven and earth. Others say that it was only the seas of the first heaven and earth that no longer exist. They connect the absence of seas to the middle of verse 1, not the beginning. And a few claim that the new creation will only have fresh water bodies.
The problem is that all of these hypotheses miss the most important point. If the heaven and earth represent the church of Christ, the seas must symbolize something, too. To the people of old it often spoke of danger and uncertainty. Isaiah wrote that the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt (Isa. 57:20). If that meaning carries over, then John is simply reminding us that there will be neither sin nor unreformed sinners in the new creation. Nothing dangerous or harmful will threaten God’s people.
Jerusalem, pictured as a bride adorned for her husband, in verse 2 provides a second metaphor. This one is, perhaps, a little more direct in that it distinctly reaffirms God’s goodwill or covenant promises toward his people. It also establishes continuity with the marriage supper of chapter 19 (vv. 5–10). While there can be no doubt that no earthly covenant exhausts the riches of the covenant of grace, the one covenant that comes closest is the marriage covenant. Marriage is the most intimate of human relationships. The bond between Christ and his church sets the pattern for human marriage.
If we missed the covenantal significance of Jerusalem and her matrimonial attire in verse 2, the next verse is even more explicit. Not only does verse 3 quote the promise of the covenant, as we mentioned earlier, but it also adds something even more profound, viz., that God’s tabernacle now resides with men in constant covenant fellowship. This is something that the people of the Old Testament looked forward to. Leviticus 26:11 promised, And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. God’s tabernacle among the people visibly reassured them of his abiding favor. The fact that the same promises was repeated later by Ezekiel shows that the tent that Moses constructed was not the tabernacle that God promised. Ezekiel wrote, My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Ezek. 37:27). Note the reference to the covenant once again.
So, what is this tabernacle that resides with men? Where is the visible reassurance of God’s covenant favor? John answered these questions in the first chapter his gospel, when he wrote, And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Here the word translated dwelt (ἐσκήνωσεν) is a verbal form of the noun tabernacle (σκηνή) in our text. The Word tabernacled among us. He pitched his tent with men. And having taken our flesh upon himself, he not only symbolizes God’s covenant favor to us, but is the very mediator through whom that favor comes.
As our mediator, he wipes away all of our tears, destroys death and makes all things new. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one who infuses all creation with meaning and purpose. He gives the water of life to those who thirst, and from that glorious fountain we commands us to drink freely. And he is pleased to call everyone who comes to him in faith his son.
Verse 8 reminds us that no one else shares in these glorious privileges. Unbelievers continue in death and under God’s wrath, just as we who have been given life continue in life and are the objects of God’s delight.
The main purpose of this evening’s text is to reveal to you the extent of your heavenly Father’s care. And what does it show?
The answer begins with God’s covenant. He loved you so much that he pledged himself to be your God and he promised to make you his people. And you can enjoy the reality of the promises of the covenant only if you put your faith in Jesus Christ. Our covenant children need to pay special attention to this. Because you were born into Christian homes, you have the privilege of daily instruction in the Word of God and the assurance that your fellow church members are praying for you. But you cannot enjoy the fullness or the reality of the covenant until you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins.
When you believe, God’s love for you is revealed further in the fact that all things become new. You become a new man in Christ. Gradually you learn to put off the things of the old man and put on the things of the new man. You start to love the things you once hated, and hate the things you once loved.
And that newness of life becomes complete when you enter glory. Everything that once tried to hinder you in your walk — sorrow, death, pain, suffering, and the like — will be gone forever. From that point on, the tabernacle of God, i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ, will be your sole focus. You will drink richly of that unending stream known as the water of life.
Such is the Father’s love toward his people! Amen.