Chapters 17-20 introduce a vision of God’s triumph over evil. An angel tells John (the author of this book—the one who sees this vision):
“Come here. I will show you the judgment
of the great prostitute who sits on many waters,
with whom the kings of the earth committed sexual immorality,
and those who dwell in the earth
were made drunken with the wine of her sexual immorality.” (17:1b-2).
She was “sitting on a scarlet-colored animal, full of blasphemous names, having seven heads and ten horns” (17:3)—symbolizing seven kings (17:9) and ten kings (17:12). The ten kings “will war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings. They also will overcome who are with him, called and chosen and faithful” (17:14). This beast “was, and is not; and is about to come up out of the abyss and to go into destruction” (17:8).
On the woman’s forehead was written, “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF THE PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” (17:5). She “was drunken with the blood of the saints” (17:6). She was “the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17:18)—a guarded reference that John’s readers would have understood as Rome.
Another angel presented John with a vision of the destruction of Babylon (chapter 18)—and a vision of rejoicing in heaven over the end of that evil empire (19:1-10).
Then John saw a vision of a rider whose name is “the Word of God.” He was mounted on a white horse (19:13) and was leading an army mounted on white horses to “strike down the nations” (19:15). He has on his garment and on his thigh a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (19:16).
An angel called to a host of birds, “Come! Be gathered together to the great supper of God, that you may eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, and small and great” (19:17b-18). This, of course, foresaw the end of the battle, with the battleground strewn with the corpses of Babylon’s army.
“The beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies” (19:19) assembled to make war against the rider of the white horse, but the beast was captured. The beast and the false prophet “were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword of him who sat on the horse, the sword which came forth out of his mouth. All the birds were filled with their flesh” (19:20b-21).
To complete the victory, an angel “seized the dragon, the old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole inhabited earth, and bound him for a thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were finished” (20:2-3a). This dragon was the master of the beast—and therefore the ultimate in evil authority.
Then the martyrs who died for their testimony to Jesus “lived, and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead didn’t live until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection” (20:4b-5).
Then John saw a vision of “a great white throne, and him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. There was found no place for them. I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne” (20:11-12). The books were opened, to include the book of life, and “the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works” (20:12). “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. If anyone was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire” (20:14-15).
REVELATION 21:1-2. A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH
1 I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and the sea is no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1a). Centuries earlier, God (through the prophet Isaiah) assured the Jewish exiles, “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be you glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy” (Isaiah 65:17-18).
In that Isaian context, God was promising the Jewish exiles that he would restore their great city, Jerusalem, which had been destroyed much earlier. This was God’s promise that the exiles would be able to return to their home—that they would be able to live once again in their great city. The former things—their exile in Babylonia—would fade into distant memory so that they might enjoy their new freedom.
Peter used similar language, when he said, “But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Now John appropriates that language to speak of the heavenly city—the New Jerusalem—the new home for the faithful. John has seen it, and describes it to reassure faithful Christians who have endured adversity—people who need to hear that God will make things right.
John says of this new city, “There will in no way enter into it anything profane, or one who causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). “There will be no curse any more. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (22:3-4).
“for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away” (v. 1b). Jesus alluded to the transient nature of our world when he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Luke 21:33). Now John sees the fulfillment of those words.
Earlier, John reported: “I saw a great white throne, and him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. There was found no place for them” (Revelation 20:11). The old earth and the old heaven, threatened by the presence of God, the righteous judge, attempted to flee from his presence. However, they found no place of refuge. Where could they go to find refuge from God’s spirit—and where could they go to flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7).
“the first heaven…passed away“ (v. 1b). We might find it confusing that “the first heaven” would pass away. We tend to think of heaven as God’s realm where everything is good—in contrast to our kosmos-world where everything is tainted with evil.
But the word “heaven” has more than one meaning in the Bible. When Genesis says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” (Genesis 1:1), the phrase “the heavens and the earth” constitute the totality of the created order—not “the heavens” as the dwelling place of God vs. “the earth” as the dwelling place of humans.
Both Old and New Testaments attest to the fact that the heavens and the earth as the created order will perish (Psalm 102:25-26; Isaiah 34:4; Hebrews 1:10-11; 12:26). However, the destruction of the old order is simply a prelude to the establishment of a new order—”new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). The new creation will be characterized by purity—”There will in no way enter into it anything profane, or one who causes an abomination or a lie” (21:27)—and “There will be no curse any more” (22:3).
“and the sea is no more“ (v. 1c). It is difficult to imagine a world without seas. Nearly three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans. If these oceans were to dry up, little, if any, life could survive on Earth. Evaporation from the seas brings the rain that plants require—and water that enables rivers to flow.
Today, we are able to examine the moon and planets for signs of life. In that search, scientists equate signs of water to signs of life, because water is necessary for life as we know it.
However, we also need to remember that, for ancient people, the sea was also the realm of “Leviathan the fleeing serpent” (Isaiah 27:1)—and the monster, Rahab (Job 26:12). People feared the sea, because a boat in the midst of the seas was vulnerable to wind and waves. Many were the fishermen who failed to return home—victims of treacherous seas.
God, however, remains the master of the seas:
• God parted the waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites might pass through unhindered—and then brought the waters back together to trap the Egyptian army that was pursuing the Israelites (Exodus 14).
• God held back the waters of the Jordan River so the Israelites could cross into the Promised Land (Joshua 3).
• God cut the monster, Rahab, in pieces (Isaiah 51:9)—and “broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters (and) broke the heads of Leviathan” (Psalm 74:13).
• Jesus walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee to join his disciples in their boat (Matthew 14:25).
“I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband“ (v. 2). The picture here is not the movement of the faithful from this world to the next, but rather the redemption of this world. “The righteous…do not ascend to the new heaven; rather the new heaven descends to earth in the form of the New Jerusalem” (Wright, 767).
John is, indeed, talking about the end of life as we know it. But that doesn’t really constitute the end, but is instead the beginning of the new order. The passing of the old heaven and the old earth is the prelude to the establishment of the New Jerusalem.
Our lectionary reading extends only through verse 6, but beginning with verse 10, John gives a detailed description of the New Jerusalem—its radiance—its high walls and great gates—its immense size—its foundations adorned with jewels—its gates of pearl and streets of gold. “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple. The city has no need for the sun, neither of the moon, to shine, for the very glory of God illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:22-23).
REVELATION 21:3-4. GOD HIMSELF WILL BE WITH THEM
3 I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling (Greek: skene) is with people(Greek: anthropon), and he will dwell (Greek: skenosei—from skenoo) with them, and they will be his peoples (laoi—the plural of laos), and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.”
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, God’s dwelling (skene) is with people” (anthropon—men, humans) (v. 3a). This Greek word, skene, is the word used for the tabernacle in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the New Testament (Acts 7:44; Hebrews 9:2-3, 21; 13:10). The tabernacle was a tent that accompanied the Israelites wherever they went in their forty-year trek in the wilderness. It was the place where the Israelites made their daily offerings. They understood the tabernacle (specifically the Holy of Holies) to be the place where God dwelled. The temple was the successor to the tabernacle once the Israelites established themselves in the Promised Land.
The author of Hebrews assures us that Jesus is our high priest—and the true tent (skene) “which the Lord pitched, not man” (Hebrews 8:2). He further notes that the tent erected by Moses in the wilderness was but “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5).
In the Gospel of John, we read that “the Word became flesh, and lived (eskenosen—from skenoo—tabernacled, erected his tent) among us” (John 1:14).
Now we hear God’s voice assuring us that the skene—the tent or tabernacle or home of God—is among mortals” (anthropon—men, humans). The point is that God is near us—with us—not distant or unreachable.
“He will dwell (skenosei—from skenoo—tabernacle) with them“ (v. 3b). Once again we see the “tabernacle” word—in this case, the verb, skenoo, instead of the noun, skene.
This reinforces the promise that God’s dwelling place will be in the midst of his people, just as the tabernacle was in their midst as they wandered in the wilderness.
“they will be his peoples” (laoi—the plural of laos) (v. 3c). While some manuscripts have laos (people—singular), the better manuscripts have laoi (peoples—plural).
In the Old Testament, God promised Israel, “you will be my people” (singular) (Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 7:23; 30:22; Ezekiel 36:28). There was, indeed, a singularity about that relationship, because God had chosen Israel above all other nations—had established a covenant relationship with Israel, but not with other nations and peoples.
However, now the promise is that “God’s dwelling (skene) is with people (anthropon—men, humans). He will dwell (skenoo) with them, and they will be his peoples” (plural). No longer is God’s covenant relationship restricted to Israel. Now the faithful of every nation and race are God’s peoples, and will enjoy God’s presence among them.
“and God himself will be with them as their God” (v. 3d). The phrases, “God will be with you” and “I will be with you” appear frequently in the Old Testament (Genesis 26:3; 31:3; 48:21; Exodus 3:12; 10:10; Deuteronomy 31:8, 23; etc., etc., etc.).
That specific language is less common in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 4:9)—but the promise of God’s presence (or the presence of Christ or the Holy Spirit) is abundant in the New Testament nevertheless—beginning with the angel’s promise, “they shall call his name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:23). Also, “The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; see also Matthew 18:20; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 1 Peter 4:14; 1 John 3:24).
“He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes” (v. 4a). This is language taken from the prophet Isaiah—”He has swallowed up death forever! The Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces. He will take the reproach of his people away from off all the earth, for Yahweh has spoken it” (Isaiah 25:8; see also Revelation 7:17).
Everyone sheds tears now and then. When we are young, we shed tears over a scraped knee or a cancelled trip to Disneyland. When we are older, we shed tears over love lost—or opportunities lost. At any age, we shed tears because the death of a loved one. Given the difficulties that Christians were having with Rome at the time this book was written, their tears were quite possibly the result of persecution—martyrdom.
To wipe away someone’s tears is to comfort them—to help them through their distress. It is the kind of thing a mother might do for her children. It is comforting to know that God cares for us enough to do that.
“Death will be no more” (v. 4b). In the Bible, the word “death” is used in two ways. It is used to describe:
• The end of physical life on earth.
• Spiritual death—alienation from God—separation from God. When a person dies physically, he/she is separated from loved ones who are still alive. There is a great chasm fixed between the living and the dead so that the person who is dead cannot reach across the chasm relate to the living—and the living cannot bridge the chasm to relate to the dead. In like manner, a person who is dead spiritually is separated from God—and is therefore subject to “the course (Greek: aion—age) of this world” and “the prince of the power of the air”—a demonic power (Ephesians 2:2).
Paul says that “as sin entered into the world through one man, and death through sin; and so death passed to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). He also says, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
But Paul assures us that we have been “reconciled to God through the death of his Son, (and) much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). He says, “Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since death came by man, the resurrection of the dead also came by man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then those who are Christ’s, at his coming. Then the end comes, when he will deliver up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; when he will have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26; see also Romans 5:10, 18).
“neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away” (v. 4c). In the redeemed world—the new heaven and the new earth—there will be no cause for “mourning and crying and pain.” We mourn for those who die, but there will be no more death. We cry for many reasons (see comments on v. 4a), but the things that caused us pain under the old regime will be gone. There will be no more grief or tears or pain, because the causes of those things will no longer exist.
REVELATION 21:5-6. BEHOLD, I AM MAKING ALL THINGS NEW
5 He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He said, “Write, for these words of God are faithful and true.” 6 He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life.”
“He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (v. 5). Now we see “the one who was seated on the throne”—and hear God’s voice promising, “Behold, I am making all things new.” This is one of the few times in this book where God speaks directly.
In verse 1, John saw a vision of a new heaven and a new earth—and of the first heaven and the first earth passing away (see comments on v. 1 above).
“He said, ‘Write, for these words of God are faithful and true’” (v. 5). Some scholars think that an angel gave this command, but there is nothing in the Greek text to suggest a transition from one speaker to another.
Whether the speaker is God or an angel makes no difference to the meaning. John, having seen this vision, is to record it so that others might know what he has seen. He is to do so, because “these words of God are faithful and true”—reliable—a sure guide.
“faithful and true“ (v. 5b). Living in a fallen world, we know how difficult it is to discern truth from fiction. We are surrounded by people (individuals, merchants, companies, advertising) who promise all sorts of things—but often fail to live up to those promises. If we take actions that depend on their reliability, we can very well find ourselves severely disappointed.
However, if we base our actions on a trustworthy guide—on that which is true—we will not be disappointed. God (or the angel) promises that what John is seeing is, indeed, “faithful and true.”
“He said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End’“ (v. 6a). Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega is the last letter. This phrase, then, describes that which is first and last—beginning and end—all encompassing.
“the Beginning and the End’“ (v. 6b). God, being eternal, can’t really be defined by time, but this is convenient language to help us to appreciate God’s eternal nature.
The Old Testament describes God as the first and the last (Isaiah 44:6; 48:12). The book of Revelation describes God as “the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8; 21:6).
Later, Jesus will say “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:13). That is in keeping with the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
“I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life“ (v. 6c). Water is the stuff of life. Without food, we can live for quite some time. Without water, we can live only a very few days. Water is useful not only for drinking, but also for washing, necessary for health—and for bathing, useful for health and comfort.
In an arid land such as Israel, water is especially precious—and help in finding water is especially welcome. The Old Testament describes God as a shepherd who “leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23:2)—and as “the spring of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13).
• Jesus told the woman at the well that he could offer her “living water” (John 4:10).
• He also said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38; see also Isaiah 12:3; 55:1; 58:11; Zechariah 14:8).
• Jesus also promised, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
• Later, the Spirit and the bride will issue the invitation, “Come! He who is thirsty, let him come. He who desires, let him take the water of life freely” (22:17).
The Psalmist says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants after you, God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1-2)—revealing a longing that many of us feel. We long for that which is trustworthy, and God is faithful. We long for grace, and God offers grace as a gift. We long to be loved, and the scriptures assure us that God loves us. We long for life that is fulfilling and meaningful, so God calls us to work that contributes to his plan for the salvation of the world. We long to continue life, so God offers us eternal life. God satisfies needs that cannot be satisfied anywhere else.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Wright, J. Edward, in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007)
Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan