January 26: Revelation 21:1

Having interrupted the series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation (part of the continuing Study Series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”), for special postings over Christmas and New Year, I am now returning to conclude these notes. I am picking up where we left off, at the end of chapter 20.

Revelation 21-22

In terms of the visionary narrative of the book of Revelation, the great end-time Judgment was seen as having been completed in chapters 19-20. These two chapters contain parallel sets of visions, describing the final Judgment from two different, but related, vantage points. The Judgment entails punishment of the wicked—both humankind (the Nations) and the forces of evil controlled by the Dragon/Satan. Like many of the symbols in the visions, the great Judgment has both earthly and heavenly aspects. In chapter 19, it is the earthly aspect that is emphasized, focusing on the defeat of the nations, and the Messianic role of the exalted Jesus as a warrior and conqueror. By contrast, we may say, in chapter 20 the heavenly aspect is more properly in view, with the defeat of Satan, and the Messianic role of Jesus ruling (as king) along with the resurrected righteous (believers). On the difficult question of how to interpret the “thousand years” in chap. 20, see the previous notes and my supplemental article on the subject.

The next two chapters (21-22) describe the New Age that is to come, following the Judgment. While this has been anticipated and alluded to throughout the earlier visions, it is only now depicted—in vivid detail—as befits the chronology of the narrative. Moreover, as the climax of the book, we now find that the earthly and heavenly aspects of the symbolism are finally brought together, merging and resolving within one last, great vision.

Revelation 21:1-8

Verses 1-4

Revelation 21:1

This unity of earthly and heavenly, which, in many ways, represents the thematic goal and purpose of the narrative, is expressed most powerfully in the opening verse:

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth—for the first heaven and the first earth went away, and there is (now) no longer (any) sea.” (v. 1)

This statement alludes to Isaiah 65:17ff, one of the most famous passages in the Old Testament describing the “New Age” to come (or the future “Golden Age”); cf. the recent article on the “thousand years” motif. The same basic idiom (and idea) is expressed in Isa 66:22: “…the new heavens and the new earth that I make”. The theme of the transformation of the world, of the current created order, is part of the overall restoration-imagery in Isa 40-66 (Deutero-Isaiah)—41:19-20; 45:8, etc. As previously discussed, the future New Age is a key component of the Jewish eschatology of the period, and the early Christian ideas regarding it generally follow the Jewish apocalyptic and Messianic traditions. It can, however, be depicted a number of different ways; I have noted three main lines of tradition:

    • An idealized continuation of the current life on earth (i.e. the Golden Age, cf. above)
    • The blessed/heavenly afterlife for the righteous, having passed through the Judgment, and
    • The dissolution of the world, followed by a new creation.

Revelation 21-22 brings together all three of these, as do other eschatological writings of the period. However, it is the third which is emphasized specifically here in 21:1-8. On similar references to the passing away of the current world, and the creation/transformation of one that is new, cf. Jubilees 1:29; 4:26; 1 Enoch 45:4-5; 72:1; 91:14ff; 2 Baruch 32:6; 44:9ff; 57:2; Koester, p. 794. The dissolution of the universe is a common element of eschatological and apocalyptic thought worldwide, and, based on Old Testament Prophetic tradition, was included as part of the early Christian expectation regarding the phenomena surrounding the end-time Judgment, whether understood concretely or figuratively (cf. Mark 13:24-25 par, and throughout the vision-cycles in Revelation). The future transformation of all creation is related to the final transformation of humankind (believers) in Romans 8:18-25 (cf. the prior article on this passage). In 2 Peter 3:10-12, we have the familiar eschatological image of the world consumed by fire at the end of the current Age, associated with the traditional depiction of the end-time Judgment by fire (cp. James 3:6). The reference to the paliggenesi/a (“coming to be again”) in Matt 19:28 may imply more than the resurrection of the righteous, since it can also be used to express the idea of the restoration (and reconstitution) of the world (Philo Life of Moses II.65; cp. Josephus Antiquities 11.66); in Stoic eschatology, it is used for the renewal of the world following its dissolution by fire (e)kpu/rwsi$).

One particular detail in this “new heaven and new earth” is that “there is no longer (any) sea“. This is not simply a cosmological detail; for, in the book of Revelation, there is special significance of the Sea (qa/lassa) as a symbol. Throughout the visions in the second half of the book (chaps. 12-19), the Sea represents the forces of evil and chaos at work in the world; cf. especially 12:12, 17; 13:1ff (the Creature out of the Sea); 16:3; 17:1ff; 18:17ff; 20:8, 13. This imagery stems from ancient Near Eastern cosmological myth and tradition, as I discuss in a previous article. In this context, to say that “there is no longer any Sea” means that there is no longer any evil at work in the world. From the standpoint of the historical (and socio-religious) background of Revelation, it means, in particular, that the wicked human institutions (i.e. the Roman Empire) which are controlled by the forces of evil, no longer exist or have any power.

Even more indicative of the union of the heavenly and earthly in the New Age is the symbol of the “new Jerusalem” coming down out of heaven. As this image is foundational to all that follows in the vision of chaps. 21-22, it is worth devoting a separate note to it; we will discuss vv. 2-4 in the next daily note.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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