Revelation 21:1-8, continued
Verses 1-4, cont.
Following the initial declaration of the “new heaven and new earth” (v. 1, cf. the previous note), the foundational image of the vision is introduced in verse 2:
“And I saw the holy city, the new Yerushalaim, stepping [i.e. coming] down out of the heaven from God, having been made ready as a bride having been adorned for her man [i.e. husband].”
The motif of the city of Jerusalem, the traditional capital and sacred site of Israelites and Jews, has appeared variously throughout the earlier visions, though not always cited by name. In 11:2ff, as here, the expression “the holy city” (po/li$ a(gi/a) is used, drawing upon Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Nehemiah 11:1, 18; Isaiah 48:2; 52:1; Daniel 9:24; Matthew 4:5; 27:53, etc). In the book of Revelation, however, this expression takes on greater meaning, referring to the true (heavenly and spiritual) dwelling place of God (cf. below). In the vision of 14:1-5, the reference is to Zion (Heb ‚iyyôn, /oYx!), the ancient fortified hilltop site around which the larger city would be built, and which was the location of the Temple. As such, the name had special religious (and theological) significance as the dwelling place of God, and the place to which people would go for safety and protection. Jerusalem is also in view with the expression “the (be)loved city” in 20:9, and the “city” in 14:20 perhaps alludes to it as well. The heavenly “holy city” (Jerusalem) of God forms a clear and stark contrast to the wicked “great city” (Babylon) of earth (11:8ff; 16:19; 17:18; 18:10, 16ff).
The idea of this “Jerusalem” being located in heaven also has parallels in earlier tradition. Paul makes use of the same symbolism in his allegory in Galatians 4:21-31. Believers in Christ belong, not to the earthly city of Jerusalem which represents the slavery of humankind, but to the ‘Jerusalem’ that is “above” (a&nw) which symbolizes the freedom we now have in Christ (and in the Spirit), vv. 25-26. The letter of Hebrews also speaks of a Zion, a heavenly Jerusalem, to which believers belong (12:22). We wait for the time when we may enter this city, our true home, a longing that will soon be realized in the future (11:10, 16; 13:14) when the city “comes”. The images of names being written down in the “paper-roll (scroll) of life” draws, in part, on the Greco-Roman custom of the names of citizens being recorded on rolls (13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 21:27). The true citizenship of believers is in heaven (cf. Phil 3:20).
The description of this “Jerusalem” as new (kaino/$) has three points of significance:
- Emphasizing its heavenly character; this corresponds to the “new song” that believers sing (in heaven, 5:9; 14:3), and the promise of a “new name” that the faithful will receive in heaven (2:17; 3:12).
- It is part of the new creation, i.e. the “new heaven and new earth” (v. 1). Elsewhere in the New Testament, in the letters of Paul especially, this is described as being realized for believers now, in the present (through the work of Christ and the presence of the Spirit)—cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Rom 7:6; Col 3:10; also Eph 2:15; 4:24. The scene of Rev 21-22 depicts the future fulfillment of what we already experience in the Spirit; elsewhere this is tied specifically to the future resurrection (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; cp. Rom 8:18-25).
- The heavenly Jerusalem replaces the old earthly city; this is signified by the idea of the heavenly city coming down, i.e. down to the earth. In this vision, as I have noted, the heavenly and earthly aspects of the symbolism finally merge together and are united. In archetypal religious symbolism, the “holy city” and the temple both represent a meeting point between heaven and earth, the divine and the human; this is certainly so for the Jerusalem/Temple imagery in early Christianity, spiritualized as it is—God and man meet in the person of Christ and in the living/abiding presence of the Spirit.
The motifs of holiness/purity and newness are reinforced by the marital imagery in verse 2: “Jerusalem” has been prepared as a bride (numfh/) for her marriage, made ready to join her husband, meeting together for the moment of their wedded union. She is adorned or ornamented (vb kosme/w) with splendid garments and jewelry, etc. This draws again on the profound contrast between the “holy city” and the “great city” (Babylon) of earth, also depicted as a woman richly adorned, only as a prostitute (17:4, etc). The same sort of contrast is found in Old Testament tradition, contrasting the faithful wife (or bride) with the adulterous woman or prostitute; wedding/bridal imagery can also be used in this context. Jerusalem/Zion was traditionally understood as the bride of God (Isa 54:5-6; 62:4-5, etc), and the joy of the wedding, with the decorating of the bride, can serve as a motif for salvation (Isa 52:1; 62:10). The earlier use of such imagery in Revelation makes clear that the reference is to the people (believers) rather than a city per se; however, the preparation of the wedding place (and marriage home), along with that of the bride herself (19:7-9), is entirely appropriate.
“And I heard a great voice out of the ruling-seat [i.e. throne] saying: ‘See! the tent [skhnh/] of God (is) with (hu)mans, and He will put down (His) tent [skhnw/sei] with them, and they will be His peoples, and God Him(self) will be with them [as their God], and He will smear out [i.e. wipe off] all tears (flowing) out of their eyes, and there shall not be death any longer, and no sorrow and no crying and no (pain of) labor shall there be any longer, (for it is) [that] the first (thing)s (have all) gone away’.”
The Majority Text has the great voice speaking from out of “heaven” generally, rather that out of the “ruling-seat” (qro/no$) of God in heaven. This latter reading of a A 94, etc, is probably correct, hearkening back to the messages (and Messengers) emerging from God’s throne (16:17; 19:4-5). It emphasizes the place where God resides (and rules), the central message of the declaration in vv. 3-4 being that God and humankind (i.e. believers) how dwell together in the same place. This was already true spiritually, and symbolically, by the presence of the Spirit in and among believers; however, now, at the end, it is realized fully and completely.
The wording draws from the Scriptures, where this relationship between God and His people is expressed in numerous passages (Lev 26:11-12; Exod 29:45; Jer 7:23; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:28; Ezek 11:20; 36:28; 37:23; Zech 2:11; 8:3, 8, etc). Probably it is Ezek 37:27 that is primarily in view, though the wording of Lev 26:11-12 is also fairly close. The Hebrew word translated “dwelling place” (/K*v=m!) primarily, and originally, referred to the ancient Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) of Israelite history and tradition. It came to be used more generally of the Jerusalem Temple, but the book of Revelation preserves the specific image of the “tent” (skhnh/) at several points (13:6; 15:5), including here in the final vision. The Ezekiel reference is ultimately followed by a depiction of the future/ideal Jerusalem (chaps. 40-48), much as a description of the new/heavenly Jerusalem follows here in chaps. 21-22.
The relationship between God and His people is defined by the language and traditions of the ancient “binding agreement” or covenant (Heb tyr!B=). The old covenant was made with a single people (lao/$), Israel; now, however, the new covenant is with many peoples (plural laoi/)—believers from all the nations who make up the people of God (see esp. the vision in chapter 7). Some manuscripts do read the singular lao/$ (“people”) here, but this would scarcely change the meaning, since the book of Revelation could just as easily express the idea of believers (from all the nations) as the collective “people” (singular) of God (18:4).
The second part of this message (v. 4) begins the description of what life will be like (for believers) dwelling with God in the new/heavenly “Jerusalem”. The memory and effect of all prior pain and suffering will be “rubbed out” (vb e)calei/fw). The translation “wiped away” makes for a lovelier reading in English, but the root verb a)lei/fw specifically refers to the rubbing or smearing of a substance (like oil or ointment) over a surface. Here the wet tears (from sorrow and crying) are the substance, and they are rubbed out, or off (e)k). More than this, the reason for crying—the suffering, toil, and pain itself—has also gone away. Most importantly of all, the principal reason for human sorrow, the experience of death, now is no more. This description comes more or less from Isaiah 25:8, and is echoed in the vision of the future New Age that is to come (65:19-20; cf. also 35:10; 51:11; Jer 31:16); the book of Revelation had alluded to it earlier in 7:17. Paul says much the same regarding the final end and elimination of death, though under the mythic personification of Death as an opponent/adversary of God and humankind (1 Cor 15:26); Revelation used this same sort of personification in 20:13-14. The concluding promise that “the first [i.e. former] things have gone away” again echoes Isa 65:17 (cf. also 43:18-19); Paul makes a similar declaration, but from the standpoint of “realized” eschatology (2 Cor 5:17).
For the readers of the book of Revelation, this is the final realization of that which was promised to them, to all those who would remain faithful, in 3:12:
“(For) the (one) being victorious…I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Yerushalaim, the (city) stepping [i.e. coming] down out of the heaven from my God, and my (own) new name.”