Friday, 25 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 21: new heaven and new earth

This is the fifteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 20, The millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

"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." So begins chapter 21. And as apocalyptic visions go, this is a pretty calm one. The conflict is over (we'll see no more violence now for the rest of the book), the old heaven and earth are finished with - and the sea, the realm of chaos and disorder - we're moving into a completely new realm.

The words are well-known, but it's a striking start to the penultimate chapter of the book. After the tumult and destruction of earlier books, we might expect to see a new earth, but this verse describes a new heaven as well - both have been lost and reshaped. Given the description (v2) of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, there still seems to be a separation of sorts between earth & heaven (in John's time the 'three-tier universe' idea was pretty widespread, but the lowest tier of the underworld has now disappeared), but the gap between earth and heaven is narrower than it was. 

A short poem tells us that "the home of God is among mortals ... he will dwell with them". The Greek word translated 'home', skēnē, is the word booth or tabernacle - the place where God dwells with his people; it appears a lot in the book of Exodus, first in the tent of meeting and later in the Temple. Jumping to near the end of the chapter, we're told that there was no Temple in the new Jerusalem, because God and the Lamb dwelt there and were themselves the Temple. George Macleod said that the isle of Iona is a thin place, where "the veil between things spiritual and things material is as thin as gossamer"; here we see the gap narrowed to nothing, the veil lifted or torn asunder.

One more thing from this short poem - God will wipe away all tears; death, mourning, crying and pain will come to an end. In this new earth, all the old griefs are lost. Many commentators have described this as a new creation, with a new Eden - in the first Eden, death came among humans, now in the second Eden, death has been lost. Karl Jenkins set this text beautifully as the culmination to his piece The Armed Man, about war and its losses, and the need for peace:
More vivid pictures: we hear directly from 'the one who was seated on the throne' - God speaks to John directly. He's told that "I am making all things new" and that "to the thirsty, I will give water from the spring of the water of life" (an echo perhaps of one of the beautitudes, promising that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness - or perhaps justice - will be filled). Those who 'conquer' (over temptation and sin, perhaps?) will live with God; but in one last appearance of the lake of fire, we're told that the faithless and various sinners will be thrown there.

And then we move to the next part of the chapter, which at length describes the new Jerusalem. At the start of the chapter, this city is described as the bride of the Lamb - a contrast with the depiction of Babylon as an impure woman. In later times, the church was to regard itself as the bride of Christ, and it's not too far-fetched to see a parallel: when the church is working at its best (which is by no means always) it serves as the body of Christ, a foreshadowing of this later bride of Christ.

Image: The New Jerusalem, 14th century tapestry (via Wikipedia)
We get a long description of the new Jerusalem. The details are argued over, and the numbers are surely as much symbolic as intended to be realistic, but it's clear it's enormous - a square plan of 12,000 stadia on either side (roughly 1380 miles on each side - some translations, including the NRSV, prefer 1500 miles). This is huge, much of the size of Europe (say from Paris to Kiev, west-east; and London to Malaga, north-south). The city is described as being the same height again (impossible on our earth - the International Space Station is at a height of 240 miles above the surface of the earth), although the walls are a much smaller 144 cubits high (clearly a symbolic number - about 65 metres, which is still pretty tall for walls). In the words of Douglas Adams about the equally-eschatological Restaurant at the End of the Universe, "this is of course impossible". Except it's not, though it may be symbolic.

The city's construction involves a lot of twelves - twelve gates, inscribed with the twelve tribes, with twelve angels at the gates; twelve foundation stones, inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. Twelve squared is, of course, 144 (cf. the 144,000 sealed ones earlier in the book), which numerologically can be made from the Greek word angelos, messenger, the word from which we get angel. Some churches have said that these sealed ones are the only people able to live in the new city (and conveniently name themselves as the sealed ones), but there is no evidence for that view in this chapter. It is all the people of God who live here.

We also get a long rendition of the precious jewels from which the city is constructed - walls of jasper, streets of pure gold clear as glass, gates from a single pearl, and twelve foundation stones each a different jewel (the same jewels as on the high priest's breastplate). This is opulence and ostentation beyond the wildest dreams of the poverty-stricken Asian churches, but in a subtler and kinder form than the vulgar ostentation of Trump Tower or the palaces of middle-eastern emirs.

And last we're told that the city glows with its own light, needs no temple, and the gates are kept open always - for this is a city that is always at peace, and which is the dwelling-place of God. Unclean things (or people) simply cannot enter it.

It's really a rather lovely vision. As we'll see in the next (and final) chapter, the new Jerusalem is not the whole of the new creation, but it is at its heart. If the old Jerusalem was the centre of the world for the Jewish people, this new Jerusalem is the centre of the universe (earth and heaven) for all peoples; the real thing of which the old Jerusalem was just a shadowy early form (to paraphrase CS Lewis' description of the Narnia beyond the doors after the end of the old Narnia in The Last Battle). 

But let's be clear. This is not heaven. This is not some other-worldly realm. It occurs in a future time - it's not the kingdom of heaven which anyone can access here on earth, as Jesus taught. But this new Jerusalem, however much it looks impossible, exists on earth - a recreated earth, an earth stripped of pain and death, but nonetheless the earth. This is a vision of the earth as it could be, and in John's belief, as it will be.

Next (and final) reading: ch 22, the healing of the nations and the inclusion of all

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