So we are in a little series on Christmas in the mind-bending book of Revelation. This is the vision of the apostle John at the end of his life on the Isle of Patmos in the 90s, the last decade of the first century. And it’s my misprint, but the bulletin says we’re in Revelation 22; we’re in Revelation 21 tonight, the first six verses. And that chapter addresses one of the age old questions of Christmas; a very old question that David Strain brought up this morning. And that is, “Why has the Son of God become a human? Why the God-man?”
And this morning, David said that without Golgotha, without the cross, then Bethlehem, Christmas is of little help to us. And tonight we’re going to take the next step and say we need the baby in the manger, we need the cross, we need Golgotha, and we need the resurrected Christ, the King of the new creation, and that the incarnation is about all of it. One theologian says that, “The incarnation is the central fact of the entire history of the world.” And in Revelation 21 you’ve got the big picture reasoning, the metanarrative of why God has become human in Jesus Christ. And the answer in this chapter is that He came to save. And what we read here is the end game of salvation. What’s salvation? And here it is in Revelation 21. And so let’s pray and then we’ll read it together. Let’s pray.
Jesus, You are the Light of the world, and so we pray tonight, Spirit of Christ, would You come, would You give us light to see the truth of Your holy Word. And we pray this in Your name, amen.
And we’ll read Revelation 21, verses 1 to 6. This is God’s Word:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.’”
Well we can only dip our toes in, there’s so much here in this vision, but this is an image of salvation. And let’s just say two things tonight. Salvation means Jesus Christ came to save so that He could first, unite heaven and earth, and then secondly, we’ll just ask why that matters for today, why that matters now.
Jesus Came to Unite Heaven and Earth
So first, Jesus came to unite heaven and earth. And there are two things here I want us to see. The first is in the very first verse. It says that John, in this vision, saw something new. He saw a new heaven and a new earth. And this new thing that he’s seeing is not speaking of something entirely different from the world we live in now. He’s now he’s seeing something or speaking of something that’s completely brand new, but he’s seeing the restoration or the renewal of this very world that we live in now. And the reason that we know that that’s what he’s talking about is because Revelation is not a book of much new symbolism at all. All the visions and the symbols are mostly taken from the Old Testament. Every single verse in Revelation 21:1-6 is a quote or a direct reference to a passage in the book of Isaiah.
And this first one is too. It comes from Isaiah 65 and there in Isaiah 65 God says, through Isaiah, “I am going to create a new heavens and a new earth,” just like John sees here. And it’s as if God knows in Isaiah 65 that we might say to that, “There is so much about the world that I live in now that I don’t want to give up - the friendships, the family, the great food, the physicality, the things that I love about being a human being in this world.” And so the very next verse in Isaiah 65, he says, “But be glad, for this is the new Jerusalem.” And when he says, “the new Jerusalem,” he’s telling you that the newness of the new heavens and the new earth isn’t entirely new. It’s not something created from nothing but it’s a new Jerusalem, a city that’s really old that the people of the Old Testament knew a lot about. It’s the city that they loved. And he’s saying, “I’m recreating the Jerusalem that you already loved.” That’s the Old Testament reference in Isaiah 65.
But here, we know just from the word “new” itself, in the Greek text of this passage the word “new” is a little Greek word, “kainos.” And “kainos” always in Greek means a newness that refers to a change of quality, not totality; a transformation of a type but not an entire transformation. That there is something wrong that is going to be fixed in this new heavens and the new earth, but it’s not an entirely new heaven and earth. And so the theologians will talk about the resurrection as the paradigm of the new creation. You remember when Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, He was veiled in a way. At first, they couldn’t recognize Him. There was something different about Him. Physically, He could walk through walls. He was different, but at the same time, over time the disciples came to recognize Him and they could eat with Him, they could sit down at the table with Him, they could touch the wounds in His hands. He still had the wounds. There was something old about Him, something of His original identity, and also something new.
And that means so would the world too. What the vision here is that the world will be resurrected. Jesus Christ is the first fruit, and just like He was risen from the dead, so we too and so the world, “we will be like Him” - something that we once were, who we are, our identity and the identity of this world, but also something new, something changed. G.K. Beale, the great scholar of this book, the book of Revelation, at Westminster, he says that Revelation 21 then is “a vision of a radically changed cosmos involving both moral and physical transformation.”
And we see that physical transformation right there in the first verse. In 21:1 it says when the new heaven and the new earth come and the first passes away, the sea will be no more. And so there’s an element, a physical transformation. But even there we know that He doesn’t mean that there won’t be any bodies of water in the new heavens and the new earth. In the very next chapter we’re told that the river of the water of life will come right out of the city of the new Jerusalem. Instead, this is taking up something from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the sea was the place of chaos. For the ancient person, there was one place they were most afraid of, and that was the sea. The Israelites were not seafaring peoples. And what he’s doing here is with a vision, with figurative language, with an image saying, “Hey, what’s going to be new about the new heavens and the new earth?” It’s saying there won’t be any more chaos. There won’t be any more sea, the great metaphor of chaos in the Old Testament. God will push back the chaos.
And that means that as much as there is physical change, there’s going to be even more basically ethical, moral transformation. In the second letter of Peter he has a vision himself of the new heavens and the new earth. In 3:13 he says this. “We await a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness will dwell.” And so in Peter’s vision, what’s new is an entire moral transformation, a place where there will be no more sin, only righteousness; no more injustice, only justice. No more hatred, only love. No more evil, only good. In other words, as John puts it in 20:2, there will be no more curse. That’s what’s new about the new heavens and the new earth. That the curse is going to pass away, that it’s going to be put away.
And you see it in verse 4, that unimaginable text that Paul prayed about just a moment ago, that is, verse 4, at the very end he uses that language of passing away. Earlier he said that the earth was going to pass away, but now we know exactly what he means when he says something is passing away. What is it that is passing away? What will pass away will be the tears of the people of God, the sorrow, the mourning, the cries, the suffering, the curse, the enmity, the broken relationships, the hatred, the greed, the lust. That is what’s passing away. And so what this means is that being saved, the ultimate image of why God has come to earth - to save us - being saved is living in a new heaven and a new earth where the curse is no more.
Now that means that being saved means being in heaven, secondly here. And being in heaven - what’s heaven? And in verse 2, verse 2, there is a life changing verb; there is a life changing participle I should say. It’s the little participle, “coming down,” that he saw something “coming down.” Now if you thought of heaven as exclusively a place that when you die you will go up to, and that’s ultimate, then this is life changing words because what he says here is that heaven is ultimately a place that God is bringing down to earth; that God is bringing back to earth. And that’s exactly what we were told when Jesus went up to heaven. In Acts chapter 1 verse 11, the angel comes and says to the disciples, “He will come back just as you saw Him go.” He’ll come back down just as you saw Him go. That heaven ultimately is a place that will come down to earth. And that is salvation. That is what it means ultimately and finally to go to heaven.
And most often in the Bible when the Bible uses the word “heaven” it’s merely referring to the skies that are above us and that’s actually how it’s being used here in verse 2 when he says, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of the heavens.” But what he’s seeing here is heaven, the heaven of God, coming down out of the heavens, the sky. And that’s because heaven is not ultimately spatial. Heaven is ultimately wherever God dwells, wherever God lives, wherever God decides to put His temple, wherever God comes down to. That’s what heaven is in the Bible. And look, Paul says that this is the whole point of Christianity. In Ephesians chapter 1, the thesis statement of the book of Ephesians in verse 9 and 10, do you remember that incredible language he uses? He says God’s purpose, “which He has set forth in Jesus Christ as a plan for the fullness of all time is this - to unite all things in Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth.” That ultimately the plan, the metanarrative, the big plan of salvation, of incarnation, is the union of heaven and earth; for God to bring heaven down.
Now what that means is salvation is spiritual and physical. As much as salvation is about the needs of our soul - God coming and meeting the spiritual needs of our soul - it’s also physical. It’s about the restoration of the body. But even more than that, most importantly what we learn here about what salvation is, is in verse 3. And in verse 3 it says this. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” Most basically, most ultimately, salvation is to be in the same place as God. It’s to be at home with God; it’s to see God. In the very next chapter, John says that we shall see His face and that that is the grand narrative, the big purpose of salvation. This is what David talks about in Psalm 27. In Psalm 27, David the king says, “I want to dwell in the house of God forever.” And David knows there that he can’t go live in the temple in Jerusalem, the tabernacle, for his whole life; he’s going to die someday. So at the end of that chapter, he lets us know what he means by that. He says, “I want to see the face of God in the land of the living. I want to see with my eyes the face of God.” That’s what David thinks ultimately salvation is. John tells us that in 1 John 3. “You shall see Him as He is.”
How do you see an invisible God? And the answer is the incarnation. You see an invisible God in the face of Jesus Christ, in the fact that God has come to earth; God has become human. You see God in the face of Jesus Christ. And in the Old Testament, because of the penalty of our sin, nobody could look at God and live, not even Moses, not even God’s special servant. When God came down to see Moses on Mount Sinai, He said to Moses, “Moses, come and see something great.” And He told him, “Come to me.” And as soon as Moses got close, He said, “Stop! Don’t take another step. You cannot enter My presence. This is holy ground. If you get any closer you’re going to die!” And He said, “Come, come to Me, yet stop. You can’t get any closer.” Because of human sin, because of the penalty of our sin, the guilt that we carry because of what we’ve done, in the OT, in the Old Testament, you couldn’t see the face of God. The next episode on the mountain, Moses had to hide in the cleft of the rock so that he wouldn’t die when God passed by.
What is the solution? What is the answer? It’s Bethlehem. It’s Golgotha. It’s that justice and mercy meet at the cross and make a way for Revelation 21 when God comes down and you will physically see the face of God in the face of Jesus Christ. You can touch His wounds. You can be with Him in your body. That’s ultimate hope. That’s resurrection life. That’s the coming of heaven down to earth. That’s salvation. This is the home we were made for.
And I’ll just close this point by saying, you know, that home is right here in the paradox of verse 3 and 4 smashed together as John has in this one sentence. If you look carefully at verse 3, verse 3 is a monarchical coronation announcement. It’s an archangel saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God has come down to be with mankind. This is the coronation of Christ the King coming down onto His throne in the new city of Jerusalem here on this earth. This is a coronation scene. And you can imagine, you know, if you would have gotten to be at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, which I desperately wish I could have been there - it was a little bit before my time - but you would have been miles away from the cathedral where she was crowned. And maybe at a tiny distance you could have seen just her silhouette as she sat down on the throne. But one thing you would have known, one thing that you might have said to yourself is, “I’ll never get to go up to her on this day. I’ll never get to touch her hands. I’ll never get to speak with her face to face.”
And here, in this image of salvation, in verse 3 the King is being pronounced, the King of all existence, “Behold, His dwelling place has come down.” He is being coronated. And in the very next line it says, “And He will know you. And He will come to you and wipe the tears from your eyes, from all the sorrows you have lived through in this life.” He is the King of the cosmos, the recreator of all creation, and He is going to come to you like a father and wipe away your tears. He’s going to know you. He’s going to be with you personally. It’s a monarch unlike any other that has ever existed in all of history. And what it means is that when we are ultimately saved in the second coming of Christ, in the new creation, God will be your King and the King will be your family.
Why Does This Future Matter for Today?
Alright so secondly and finally - we’ve only dipped our toe, there’s so much more in the image, in the vision, but we have to close. Secondly and finally, why does it matter for today? Why does this future matter for today? And there’s so much we could say about this, but I think the best thing to say or the best question to ask is, “Why did it matter when it was written?” And John’s writing this while he’s in exile in the 90s, the last decade of the first century, and he’s under the reign of the emperor Domitian. And we know from all sorts of accounts that both under Domitian, the emperor at the end of the first century, and Nero, thirty years before that, that Christians in John’s day were being systematically persecuted and murdered. And we don’t simply know this from Christian writings outside the Bible about this, but actually we have texts from people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger who are writing at the turn of the first century and who are non-Christians writing about the plight of the Christians under Domitian. So we know from non-biased accounts, non-Christian accounts exactly what was taking place.
And Tacitus tells us that under Domitian, Christians in North Africa all the way up into what we would call Europe were being thrown to the lions, tarred, and burned alive. They were often being crucified like Jesus was crucified as a way of mocking. And we have a letter from one of John’s disciples, Clement, in 1 Clement he said that when he was a boy “ignorant people would jeer, yell, and mock us in the streets.” And John’s writing this book, this vision, to those people; that’s his audience. And look, I know that obviously it’s unlikely that any of us would suffer in a similar way in contemporary America, but what we’re told here is that this vision is a vision for people who live under the weight of the curse. And ever since Genesis 3, we’ve all, every human, has lived under the weight of the curse, all of us now in suffering, in all sorts of different ways, shapes and forms. And this, what we’re reading here is theological reasoning for the suffering servants of God to find a living hope in the land of the living, in the future. This is what Jamie Smith, in his book title calls, “an exercise in imagining the kingdom of God.” This is given to us to exercise our imagination of the coming kingdom of God, to think about what it would be like and how that could change the way we live even now.
And just imagine not only this kingdom but imagine the boy and the girl, the person in the first century, who’s first hearing this vision read to them. And we know that so many little children in the 90s watched their parents taken for holding fast to the name of Jesus Christ and burned alive, crucified in front of, sometimes in front of their own children. And John, the little children of the first century, are hearing this vision. And what are they hearing? They’re hearing John say to them, “God - there’s another possibility. There is a place where God will dwell with you, where God will get on His knees and He will wipe away your little tears from your eyes as you watch your parents be taken for their faithfulness to the Gospel. There is an alternate world that is a certain future reality, and so hold the course, stay steadfast, don’t be ashamed. There’s a real living hope.” This is a living hope that he’s offering to people who live under the weight of the curse and a world full of suffering. And it’s a living hope, it’s a living hope not a dead hope because Jesus Christ, the historical man, died and rose again from the dead. And that means that the vision of Him coming again as a living hope, because He is alive, is trustworthy and true. He’s a real person who rose again from the dead in the middle of history.
And so let me just close with this. How do you get this place? How do you get the place that we’re reading about here? And how do you get the kingdom? How do you get the physical? How do you get the vision of God? How do you get the face of Jesus Christ? How do you get the moment when Jesus Christ will wipe away your tears? And it’s here in the passage at the very end in 21 verse 6, “He said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’” And here is the words of Christ - “To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” And just like all the other verses in this chapter, that’s a quote. Jesus is quoting there from the book of Isaiah, from the call to worship that I gave from Isaiah 55 just a little while ago. You remember, “Come, all you who are thirsty to the waters, without money.” Don’t come and pay anything. Come and drink. Have your thirst quenched from the water of life, the water that you’ve always been looking for that you’ve never found.
And you know, this is what Jesus meant in the gospels. David mentioned it this morning as well. In John chapter 4 when He was standing there in front of the woman at the well and she offered Him water and He said, “If you knew who was standing in front of you, you would have asked Me for water and I would have given you living water.” He says over and over again that He is the living water that He is the only river from which you can come and drink and have all your hope fulfilled, your thirst quenched, your desire for justification, for the facts of this world and also your basic human needs ultimately fulfilled, only in Him. He is the water of life. He said in John 7, “If anybody thirsts, come to Me and drink.” And He’s saying it again. But at Christmas, when He became a human, a little baby at Bethlehem, the water of life who was never thirsty for all of eternity, He became thirsty. He would have died without Mary’s milk. And when He - do you remember - when He went to the cross He was hanging there, He was being crucified, He was dying, He was giving everything, He was for us, for our sin, and He cried out, “I thirst.” The water of life, He made Himself thirsty. He gave it all away. He gave up His life so that He could offer you a drink from the river of life in the new heavens and the new earth that you could stand there in this place one day and drink from the eternal spring of water. He deprived Himself of life in order that He could look at you and say, “Come and drink. Come without payment.”
And tonight, on this Sabbath Eve of Christmas, before Christmas, every single one of us needs to either come to the water of life without anything in our hands or come back to the water of life without any payment in our hands. And these are all metaphors. Let me put it in plain language like Peter does. He says, “Repent of your sins, tonight!” Whether you’re a Christian or you’ve been exploring the claims of Jesus Christ for ages, repent and believe and give your life to Him this Sabbath Eve before Christmas because there’s no other hope. There is no other hope. Secular humanism doesn’t offer it and neither does any other religion. This is the only way and this future is the only certain future and you can’t have it without going through Him. This is the certain end of the best true story ever - the union of heaven and earth and its salvation. And it’s why Jesus has come.
Father, we ask that You would open our eyes and our heart tonight so that we would come to the water of life, the God-man - You who died but could not be held down, who resurrected and is coming in victory to unite heaven and earth. We ask that You would shape our desires that the hope of seeing You face to face would be our greatest hope and treasure. So do that work in us now, we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.