We have reached the last two chapters in Revelation. When this quarter began, I had planned to write one or two comments if Spectrum would publish them. One thing led to another, and we might have a total of twenty-four submissions by the end of this week. This one will be number twenty-three, my last text-centered comment. It covers Revelation 21:1-22:5.
I have learnt a lot from scholars who have studied Revelation. One hundred years ago, R. H. Charles spent twenty years on his two-volume commentary. It has stood the test of time better than just about any Bible commentary in print. It is still valuable enough not to allow speculative ideas to distract from the overall accomplishment. One “bad” idea is his view of the composition of the last three chapters. Charles thought that John’s stellar composition loses momentum. He speculated that John died after completing Revelation 20:3, leaving the rest of the book to be put together from loose leaflets by one of his students. The student was not the brightest — a C student at best — and the result is disappointing. I could not disagree more. Hardly better is the view of two leading German scholars. They suggest that John was tiring toward the end, that he lost interest in the material. Count me in for another loud protest.
Ever since my youth I have thought these chapters beautiful, rousing, full of hope — an exceptional finale in musical terms. When I started reading the Bible in earnest in high school, I became a hands-on reader. I underlined everything I liked, over and over, in ever thicker lines and new colors. The wear on the last two chapters of Revelation made the pages fall out before I turned twenty. I patched it up with scotch tape. When I gave up trying to salvage these pages, I bought a new Bible and did the same thing again. There is nothing not to like in the last two chapters. Just ask those who grieve, or those who speak at funeral services, or those who are about to succumb to despair.
“I saw a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, for the broken heaven and the broken earth had passed away,” John begins (Revelation 21:1, translation mine). This is Revelation’s concept of “new.” We shall not have a replacement earth. It will be the earth with which we are familiar renewed and restored. Crucially, the earth belongs to the Bible’s vision of redemption. In the traditional Christian narrative, the earth is rendered irrelevant, like a bad memory. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,” John Newton says in Amazing Grace. There is heaven, and there is forever. This is not Revelation’s vision. We shall not be there ten thousand years. If God gives the redeemed ten thousand years, or more, or forever, it will be here. How Christianity got the story so badly wrong, is one of the most extreme examples of the difference between the thought world of the Bible and the Christian tradition.
Think for a moment about Christian hymnody. How many songs do you know about the future life in heaven? You will find them in the hundreds. How many do you know about the future life on earth? I found exactly one when I looked in a Norwegian hymnal, and that was not a hymnal in my own faith tradition. The hymn I found is wonderful, and it was written within the past twenty years. Further back than that, hymns about the future life all have heaven, and heaven only, in their sights.
Revelation’s vision is material and ecological. Ecology is the science of relationships. At bottom, all existence is ecological, interdependent, and material. The ecological nihilism that pervades most Christian faith traditions is starkly unbiblical, a stranger to heaven’s eco-harmony, an anomaly. In these chapters, John is engaged in an intertextual duet with Isaiah in the Old Testament. In my Romans commentary, I have written that Paul sings a duet with Isaiah in chapters 9-11 in Romans. They sing harmonies like Simon and Garfunkel. Revelation does it, too, except that here John is Garfunkel, the second member of the duo.
For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth;
And the former things
shall not be remembered
or come to mind (Isaiah 65:17).
Ask Isaiah whether he thought that humans were meant to spend eternity in heaven. He will not understand what we are talking about. Ask him whether he envisioned an earth renewed, and he will answer in the affirmative, then wonder why we asked.
A few verses further down, we read this in the text on which John’s vision is based.
The wolf and the lamb
shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw
like the ox;
but the serpent
— its food shall be dust!” (Isaiah 65:25).
Ecology, again, is the science of relationships. In this vision, adversarial relationships are abolished. The adult animal of predation is no threat to the most vulnerable domestic animal. The death of one is not the condition for the life of another. Isaiah’s interjection about the serpent echoes Genesis (3:15): the serpent has bit the dust. Behind these background texts in Isaiah lies the Old Testament text that is overwhelmingly the most important from the point of view of Revelation.
The wolf shall live
with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down
with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling
and a little child
shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6)
Why is this text so important? It is important because it is Revelation’s substrate for its view of the life to come (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25; Revelation 21:1-4). But it is more important because it reveals the means by which God brings it about. The person who accomplishes the transformation is God’s Revealer. When the heavenly council is unable to find someone who can take the sealed scroll and break its seals, a person from “the Root of David” appears in the middle (Revelation 5:5). He is the Right-maker. As the Lamb who was killed with violence, he makes things right at a high cost to himself (5:6). Isaiah’s vision of God’s Revealer grounds the solution to the crisis in Revelation and its vision of the life to come.
A shoot shall come out
from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow
out of his roots.
On that day,
the root of Jesse
as a signal to the peoples;
shall inquire of him,
and his dwelling
shall be glorious (Isaiah 11:1, 10).
And there is more.
“And I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautified for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). This disclosure draws on the same network of passages from Isaiah.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem
as a joy,
and its people
as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping
be heard in it,
or the cry of distress” (Isaiah 65:18-19).
God restores the earth. God even redeems the city. This could disturb my faith community. We never liked the city. Country living is our mantra. This is a big topic because the city builders in Genesis are all bad characters, like Cain and Nimrod (Genesis 4:17; 10:8-12). The city, the symbol of rebellion, is also redeemed. And yes, the city in which the worst was done, Jerusalem, is redeemed, too, as the New Jerusalem. Jacques Ellul says — correctly, I believe — that God also redeems and refines culture; God lets us find again in the world to come things we created in this life. I can’t say more here; I say more elsewhere. The city that comes down from heaven is a city of and for people. We are hard pressed to find texts in Revelation that speak about going to heaven (Revelation 11:12), but there is much about “coming down from heaven” (21:2). The city comes down. A strange city it is, like a cube, like the Most Holy Place. It has no temple because it is itself a temple, and all space is now sacred space.
Picture yourself going to heaven. Upon arrival, what will you see? The place looks as if heaven’s most important residents are packing to leave. You see suitcases all over the place. “Whose suitcases are these?” you ask. “They belong to God,” someone answers. “Where is God headed?” you ask. “He is going to the place from which you just came,” is the answer. “God is going to earth.”
Tell this to the Greek philosopher Plato. Tell it to Origen, one of the greatest Christian apologists. Tell it to the who-is-who in the Christian theological tradition. God leaves heaven to go to earth for good. We shall not be there ten thousand years. We shall be here. And God shall be here, too.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying,
The dwelling place of God
is among human beings.
He will dwell with them,
and they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them (Revelation 21:3).
Subtleties in this text also point to the key text in Isaiah — “his dwelling place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). “The dwelling place of God” is also the place of God’s rest — God’s resting place. We cannot read the vision of the life to come without hearing the echo of Genesis, as well. God is not only the One who created the world. God is “God with us,” and “God with us” is the most important meaning of the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3). Already in the first thing — the Sabbath — the last things were prefigured. No one has put this better than Jürgen Moltmann. “The Sabbath in the time of the first creation links this world and the world to come. It is the presence of God in the time of those he has created or, to put it more precisely, the dynamic presence of eternity in time, which links beginning and end.” God did not create the world, then left it. The Sabbath is the high point in the story of creation, not as a memorial only. The Sabbath belongs to a theology of commitment and presence — God’s commitment and God’s presence. Sabbath may be memory, but it is also hope. It may look back to the past, but it also points to the future. Moltmann says that “Sabbath and Shekinah [God’s actual presence] are related to each other as promise and fulfillment, beginning and completion. In the Sabbath, creation holds within itself from the beginning the true promise of its consummation.” When I say that the Sabbath is divine commitment more than divine commandment, there is no stronger proof than these texts.
Vision of Healing
We need God for our brokenness, our grief, our losses, and our pain. We need God for our aching hearts and our self-contempt. I thought about it again today as I stood by the bedside of a woman younger than I am. Her cancer has recurred, like a tsunami. I thought about it in Berlin two days ago — human culture at its best outwitted and outmaneuvered by evil. Victims everywhere! Hopes dashed to pieces! Buckets of grief!
And God will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and death will be no more
nor grief nor wailing nor pain
will be any more,
for the former state of things
has passed away (Revelation 21:4).
When I thought about this text yesterday, I was out cross-country skiing in a favorite spot. I thought of the loud voices in Revelation that leads up to this text, as here: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne” (21:3). Loud voice! When did I last hear a loud voice in the church, a voice like the voice from the throne? When did we hear even a faint echo of the other loud voices in the book?
And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps (14:2).
Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns’ (19:6).
I said at the beginning of this series that Revelation is a book for the re-reader; indeed, for re-readers only! We need to broaden this. It is also for loud readers, believers ready to make an effort to hit the right tone and inflection. It is for many readers, who read these texts to create something like “the sound of many waters,” liberating them. We destroy these texts when we read them in a ho-hum manner. I tried to think about a memory that might work for a “right” reading of Revelation 21:4. A scene came to mind from when our daughters were small. We were in Florence, Italy. Our youngest daughter was sick in the hotel, but I had gone out exploring on my own in the morning. I was not far from the hotel when I heard a loud voice breaking in, louder than the traffic and the street noise. It was our oldest daughter, calling out, “Daddy!”
It was loud; it was anxious. But it was also shouted in relief, as if I were the solution to the need that had arisen. Our youngest daughter was getting sicker, therefore the shout. We made haste from there. It turned out well. If this were a class in church, we could practice reading Revelation in a tone of voice that combines loudness, anxiety, and relief.
Perhaps we can make a deal not to let these texts down by reading them in a flaccid, ho-hum way. They need many voices, loud voices, voices practiced in expressing need, hope, and relief.
Healing of the Nations
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).
John’s final vision (22:1-2) is influenced by the life-giving river and the life-giving trees in Ezekiel’s vision of healing (Ezekiel 47:1-12). Ezekiel’s description is worthy of note because his river is unpromising at first; its healing potential seems limited. One thousand cubits from the site of origin it is only ankle-deep (47:3). But the stream quickly deepens. A thousand cubits more, and it is knee-deep; another thousand cubits, and the water is up to the waist (47:4); a mere thousand cubits more, “and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed” (47:5). This is strange because there are no tributaries in the arid land through which it courses. The only source of the river is the temple of God, and, by inference, God. A river with no other tributaries should not get deeper and wider downstream than it is at its source. This is nevertheless how God’s economy of life and abundance works.
Despite running into salt-infested land, “I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other,” says Ezekiel (47:7). No less remarkable, when the river enters the sea of the Arabah, described as “the sea of stagnant waters” (47:8), “its waters will be healed” (47:8, NKJV), and “everything will live where the river goes” (47:9). “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (47:12). This is another scene of eco-theology, the river and the trees mediating healing.
Why, however, does John say of the tree of life that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations [ethnōn]” (22:2)? Ezekiel does not say anything about the nations in his vision. Does anyone else?
We shall need Isaiah one more time. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations [Hebr. goyim; Gr. ethnē] shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). By now we should recognize the influence of this text throughout Revelation. The language in our text is evocative; in Hebrew the nations [goyim] shall flock to the root of Jesse with their questions; in the Septuagint the nations [ethnē] shall pin their hopes [elpisousin] on him; in Hans Wildberger’s translation “the nations shall turn to him inquisitively.” In Hebrew and in Greek his resting-place and the rest he gives [Hebr. menuha; Gr anapausis] are glorious (Isaiah 11:10).
“The nations” are Isaianic echoes in Revelation. They denote God’s intent for the nations this side of the world to come. God, who has called his servant “in righteousness,” has appointed him “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations [Hebr. goyim; Gr. ethnōn]” (Isaiah 42:6). Although the servant has moments when he is overwhelmed with a sense of futility, thinking that he has spent his strength “for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49:4), God sees it otherwise.
In God’s eyes it is too small a thing “to rise up the tribes of Jacob” (Isaiah 49:6). There is a bigger mission; “I will give you as a light to the nations [Hebr. goyim; Gr. ethnōn], that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). The servant will spring a surprise on the human family; “he shall startle many nations [Hebr. goyim; Gr. ethnē]; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate” (Isaiah 52:15).
Revelation picks up these scenes, too, in the Lamb that appears in the middle (Revelation 5:6) and in the silence in heaven for half an hour in the seventh seal (8:1). But the outcome will be spectacular, a result vastly exceeding what the means seemed likely to accomplish. “Nations [Hebr. goyim; Gr. ethnē] shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3; cf. 60:5, 11; 66:12, 19). The healing “of the nations” bears Isaiah’s signature. It is a vision of mission — and of mission accomplished. To make that vision a reality, the Book of Revelation is still at work in the world.
Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019
Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019
Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019
Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019
Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019
Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019
Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019
Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019
Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019
Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019
Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019
Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019
Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019
Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019
Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019
Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019
God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019
Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” March 8, 2019
Armageddon Retrospect, March 12, 2019
Timeout: Armageddon Prospect, March 15, 2019
The Beast that Is an Eighth, March 20, 2019
Timeout: After the Thousand Years, March 23, 2019
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.