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The New Heaven and New Earth as Depicted in Revelation 21-22

An Epic Finale to an Epic Story

The Bible is a stunning piece of literature, even If you don’t believe anything written in it! It was penned by at least 40 traditional authors (inestimably more contributed in some capacity) and written in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. In reality, we know many languages were used to pass down oral stories from the earliest times in the biblical narrative until they were later codified in the book and language we find them in today. But what is more impressive is the story the Bible is telling.

It tells the epic story of God and his creation, of blessing, temptation, sin, exile, and salvation. For those of us reading this today, we have the advantage of knowing the entire story was leading to Jesus. All in all, it is an epic book telling an even more epic story, which begs the question, how does it end? That, my friends, is the book of Revelation, a story about Babylon, Jesus, and judgment, which is too much to cover in one blog, so we are going to focus on the very end-of-the-end of the most epic story ever told.

With that, we jump to “the end” (Rev. ch 21 & 22). The Revelation concludes with a final vision of the marriage of heaven and earth where an angel shows John a stunning bride that symbolizes the new creation that has come forever to join God and his covenant people. God announces that He's come to live with humanity forever and that He's making all things new.

Wait, wait, wait before we "jump" too far and start concluding what exactly we are reading here, we should take a moment to appreciate the level of symbology and metaphor that Jewish apocalyptic writers used. They would employ this symbology to convey massive theological truths in ways that invested their words with the cosmic meaning the prophet believed them to possess. The Revelation is no exception, so there is a lot of symbolism to wade through to get to the meaning.

Ok! Now, let's dive in.

Symbols of a New Creation

At this moment, the earth is cut off from the full life of heaven. I don’t think we have to look too far before we can confirm this by mere observation: crime, inequality, rampant greed, and selfishness. To use a biblical metaphor, creation groans like a woman in childbirth. But the new creation is here, taking form even when we can’t see it. We do sense hints of it now and then, though, just like we might make out an elbow or foot poking from within a pregnant woman’s belly. One day it will be pushed forth into life, like a new baby emerging from the womb.

So let’s talk a little more about this rebirth, because it's where this whole story is going! We have to remember that we can easily get lost in some of the details here. John is using apocalyptic symbols and metaphors to describe this event, just like the Old Testament prophets used poetry. He wasn’t transcribing a video-perfect version of what was to come. Instead, he was attempting to express an unexplainable conviction, of which sometimes only metaphors and symbols will suffice.

This then begs the question, what symbols is he using to convey this future hope?

A New Garden of Eden

In John’s symbolic vision of this great rebirth, he saw a new heaven and earth—a clear reference to the very beginning of the biblical narrative. Amazing! So, what did it look like?

“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month, and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

Revelation 22: 1-2

It's an all-new Garden of Eden, the paradise of eternal life with God! This is an image of the Old Testament prophetic echoing all the way back to the first pages of Genesis. John saw the tree of life there, accessible to all and eternally yielding fruit. It could do this because its roots had access to the eternal river of life, which can dispense nourishment to all the new creation because it flows from the presence of God himself.

However, in John’s account of a garden, humanity wasn’t represented by a couple. John describes seeing all the nations there, working to cultivate the garden as Adam and Eve did in Genesis. For John, the fulfillment of God’s purpose through Jesus would result in the restoration of humans to their place as co-rulers of God’s world, ready to work with God to take creation into uncharted territory.

A New Jerusalem

But it's not just a return back to the garden; it's a step forward into a new Jerusalem, a great city where human cultures and all their diversity work together in peace and harmony before God. John first described the new creation as a marriage of heaven and earth. Heaven is represented as both a city and a bride, coming down out of God’s heavenly domain and landing on earth, much like the staircase Jacob saw in his dream. John called the city-bride a “new Jerusalem.” It was so marvelous that he could only describe it regarding brilliant stones.

Jerusalem itself was a powerful symbol for John. It was the first and only city where God resided in a permanent holy house, the first city where kings worshiped the true Creator. At the heart of the Israelites’ Promised Land, Jerusalem represented the ultimate Promised Land: all of restored creation. John depicts the reunion of heaven and earth as the descent of a new Jerusalem. Unlike the old Jerusalem that was corrupted and dishonored by most of Israel’s kings, the new Jerusalem would be ruled by a divine king. This new city would be built by God, not by human hands.

But NOT A New Temple

John was a master of the Hebrew Scriptures, and his vision of the new creation is a kaleidoscope of images drawn from the biblical poets and prophets. His goal was to create a visual collage of Old Testament metaphors that forces us to reckon with the meaning of these images.

A great example is John’s physical descriptions of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21:15–21. He says the heavenly city has four sides, each with three gates, corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel. Then he mentions 12 huge foundation stones, which correspond to the 12 apostles. After this, John says the heavenly city is a perfect cube, each side being 12,000 stadia, or 1,400 miles. Then we’re told that the walls were 144 cubits high, or about 200 feet.

And in the most surprising twist of all, there's no temple building in the new creation! The presence of God and the lamb that was once limited to the temple now permeate every square inch of the new world. There's a new humanity there, fulfilling the calling placed on them all the way back on page 1 of the Bible. Humanity will rule in God's image, partnering with God in taking this creation into new and uncharted territory. And so ends John's apocalypse and the epic storyline of the whole Bible.

This sounds like a structure that defies mathematics, and some people leave it at that. But John wasn’t trying to document a blueprint. He was using two distinct Old Testament references to craft a deeper meaning. Let’s break this down:

  • The image of a city on a high hill with 12 gates corresponding to the 12 tribes of Israel is adapted from Ezekiel’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Ezekiel 40.

  • The concept of a cube is derived from 1 Kings 6:19–20, which specifies that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple was cubic.

  • The results of combining these references only makes sense on a symbolic level. If you try to draw it, the numbers just don’t work. But John’s goal was to communicate that Ezekiel’s idea of a new Jerusalem would be one giant temple with the same qualities as the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple.

Still confused? It means there will be no need for a physical temple or Holy of Holies in the new creation because the fullness of God’s presence will be everywhere. All of the new creation will be God’s Holy of Holies.

A Whole New, Vague Creation

John’s visions leave most of our questions about the new creation unanswered—and that’s not a bad thing. John’s goal wasn’t to satisfy our curiosity about the new world, but to instill confidence that the creation would be reborn just as Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

This is the hope of the story of the Bible: God’s domain and our domain will one day completely unite. All things will be made new. Death will be replaced with life. The whole earth will be a recreation of the garden, and the glory of the temple will cover it. Every nation will be blessed through the power of the resurrected Jesus, and God’s own personal presence will permeate every square inch of the new creation.

Ok! So, I can buy all the visions of the future in which I can place my hope, but you still haven’t told me where I go when I die?

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Get ready for the answer.

There is not even one passage in the Bible that talks about “going to heaven” after you die. The phrase “go to heaven” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Old or New Testaments about death. Not once. This doesn’t mean the Bible has nothing to say about what happens to God’s people after they die. It just means that “going to heaven” isn’t the way biblical authors thought about it. Let’s look at the New Testament passages that speak to what Jesus’ followers will experience after they die.

  • Jesus spoke to the repentant criminal being crucified next to him, saying, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.” - Luke 23:42-43

  • Paul discussed his possible execution in a Roman prison, and he said death wouldn’t be so bad. It would make the Philippians sad, but he would get to be “with Christ.” - Philippians 1:21-24

  • Paul talked about the true hope that drives Christian faithfulness, even in the face of death. The result of death, he said, was being “with the Lord.” - 2 Corinthians 5:6-9

Notice the consistent factor is not that people will “go to heaven,” it’s that they all use the same phrase: Our hope is about being “with Jesus.” Both Jesus and Paul believed that not even death could separate people from God’s love, and that Jesus’ followers would be with him after death.

However, Paul does not envision this disembodied mode of existence as permanent, or even desirable. In 2 Corinthians 5:2, Paul wrote that in this world “we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.” He’s referring here to a resurrected body believers will inherit when they are finally made like Jesus. For Paul, the end goal is not disembodied bliss in heaven, but rather a restored physical existence, which is a gift from heaven.

But what about the interim period, when our mortal bodies rot in the ground?

Paul describes this interim experience like “falling asleep.” He wasn’t alone in using sleep as a metaphor for death. It was common in Jewish culture to use the phrase “lay down with my ancestors” to talk about death. The prophets described death as a form of sleep and the hope of future resurrection as “waking up.” Remember that these are poetic metaphors, so we shouldn’t analyze them for precise information about what we will experience after we die. In the Revelation, it would seem John’s hope somehow resides in the specific manner in which Jesus was resurrected. Just as he went through death and came out the other side in a transformed physical existence, so also his people can hope for the same. The risen Jesus was physical, not a ghost. He ate food and drank wine and talked with his followers about the Kingdom of God over the course of a few weeks. He had scars on his hands and feet. There was no mistake. They were touching and talking with the same Jesus they followed up in the hills of Galilee.

But the resurrected Jesus was also different. Really different. Some of the disciples didn’t even recognize him at first glance. And while Jesus’ body was physical, it was physical in a way that was different from ours. He inexplicably appeared and disappeared from rooms, baffling the disciples. There were no categories that prepared them for this moment, so all they could do is tell the odd stories we find in the New Testament.

This paradox of “the same Jesus and also a different Jesus” is precisely what John was trying to communicate about the “new heavens and earth” in the book of Revelation. He was convinced that the future of the universe walked out of the tomb on Easter morning, simultaneously the same and different. What was true of the risen Jesus is what will be true for all creation when heaven and earth completely reunite.

So while we can’t say you’ll “go to heaven” when you die, we can say that one day you will be resurrected and reborn LIKE Jesus in the resurrection. Even better, that means you’ll be WITH Jesus. Now THAT is worth writing home about, and in this case, was worth John writing the churches in Asia minor to remind them about.

John did not write this book as a secret code for you to decipher the timetable of Jesus' return, or figure out exactly what happens to you after you die. It's a symbolic vision that brought hope and challenge to the seven 1st Century churches, and every generation of Christians. It reveals history’s pattern and God's promise that every human kingdom eventually becomes Babylon and must be resisted in the power of the slain Lamb. But there's a promise that Jesus who loved and died for this world, will not let Babylon and all the evil of this world go unchecked. One day, Jesus will return to remove evil from His good world and make all things new, including his people! And that is a promise that should motivate faithfulness in every generation of God's people until the King returns.

Thanks for reading! This is a modified selection from our Heaven & Earth Workbook. You can download the entire workbook for free here.

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