Introducing the New Heaven, New Earth, and New Jerusalem (21:1-2)
The previous chapter has concluded with the image of final judgment. Satan has been thrown into the lake of fire. All the dead are standing before the throne and the books were opened. Those whose names were not written in the book of life were also thrown into the lake of fire, where they along with Satan are tormented day and night forever and ever (20:10,15). Our context is the end of time when Christ returns and final judgment has occurred. There is nothing in the context to suggest that we are changing the time frame as we read chapter 21.
John now sees a new heaven and new earth because the first heaven and first earth had passed away. We saw the first heaven and earth pass away in Revelation 20:11. The time of this physical earth is completed. It has been burned up (2 Peter 3:10). Now the new heaven and the new earth have been ushered in. John is going to be told what this new heaven and new earth looks like in verses 3-8. Before we look at the details of this new heaven and earth, it is important to know that this is not the first time this image is used in the scriptures. Isaiah prophesied of this same time of restoration in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. His description of the new heavens and new earth mirrors what John is going to see in these upcoming verses. Peter also spoke of this coming age.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10–13 ESV)
Notice Peter puts the same timeline together that we see in the book of Revelation. The physical heavens and earth are burned up and dissolved. All the works done on the earth are exposed which is the same as the books being opened as all stand before the throne in Revelation 20:12. Once these things are accomplished, Peter says there is a new heaven and earth where righteousness dwells. Now the paradise of God has arrived. Now the kingdom of God has been fully consummated as all the enemies have now been put in subjection. The apostle Paul taught that the last enemy to be destroyed in Christ’s kingdom rule is death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Revelation 20 concluded with death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:24 that the end will come after Christ destroys every rule, every authority, and every power. Martin Pickup, in his lecture at the 2011 Florida College Lectureship, taught that imagery of the new heavens and new earth is “a return to the Edenic union of God and His people.”
Verse 1 also reveals that the sea was no more. The sea has a reference to the realm of evil in the book of Revelation (see also Isaiah 57:20). We saw the dragon bring the beast up from the sea (13:1), depicting its great evil. Included in this evil is a representation of the mass of humanity (cf. Revelation 20:13). The evil nations and the wickedness of the world have passed away along with the physical heaven and earth.
Notice that Revelation 21:2-8 confirms this understanding that the new heaven and new earth are about the full restoration of God to his people and Christ’s kingdom completing its subjugation of all authorities and powers. Verse 2 shows the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. We saw this imagery of the bride back in Revelation 19:7-8 where we learned that the bride represented the holy people of God and the bright clothing representing the pure and righteous deeds of the saints (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27). More will be described about the bride of Christ in verse 9 through the rest of chapter 21.
The New Heaven and New Earth (21:3-8)
The apostle Peter said that we are looking forward to the new heaven and new earth. The meaning of this new world shows why we are full of anticipation. Verse 3 tells us that the dwelling place of God is now with humans. God is living with his people. This is what we are looking forward to obtaining. God is dwelling with his people again. Sin ripped man out of the paradise and presence of God for God cannot live with darkness, evil, and sin. Through the victory of Christ on the cross and rule of his kingdom we now can live with the Lord. The scriptures reveal that when we come to Christ we become the people of God and God blesses us. Ephesians 5:25-27 speaks of a current joining of Christ to the church, the people of God. However, we cannot reverse the timeframe of the book at this point. John is seeing what will happen at the conclusion of the final judgment. While the kingdom of Christ was established in Acts 2 and all who accept the invitation of the Lamb participate in that kingdom as John described himself as a fellow partaker in the kingdom (Revelation 1:9), Revelation 21 is picturing the ideal union between Christ and his people. Revelation 21 is picturing the church in its perfected state at the end of the reign of Christ. John is seeing the eternal reward being given to God’s people.
Verse 4 validates our understanding that this is showing the people of God in their future, perfected state receiving the eternal reward at the end of time. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Do not foul up the beautiful imagery given here. Some read this and say that if God is wiping tears that means God’s people are still crying. This is not what this imagery means. The image is that while on the earth these Christians have been suffering. They are full of tears. They are full of pain. They have been persecuted. They have been killed. God wiping tears means that he is giving perfect comfort to his people. Isaiah shows this very point when he speaks of weeping for the destruction of the nation, but then prophesies a time of comfort as God wiping the tears.
Therefore I said: “Look away from me; let me weep bitter tears; do not labor to comfort me concerning the destruction of the daughter of my people.” (Isaiah 22:4 ESV)
He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8 ESV)
Verse 4 continues to show that comfort from life’s sorrows and pains is in view. Death will no longer exist. There will not be mourning or crying. Notice that there will not be crying any longer. The tears that God is wiping are those tears shed during this present heaven and earth. In the new heaven and earth God will comfort his people. There will be no more death, no more mourning, and no more crying. Grief and pain will exist no longer because all of these things have passed away. Christ has been victorious. He has conquered all powers and authorities. Now the people of God are able to rest.
Verse 5 is the language of prophetic certainty. To tell these first century Christians, “Behold, I am making all things new” is a message of encouragement. Christ’s kingdom has been established and the process of restoration has begun. The fall of the Jewish nation and the Roman Empire have been necessary steps as the kingdoms of the world are placed in subjection to Christ’s kingdom. The rest of verse 5 continues this encouraging message. “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” God’s word is true and can be trusted. Christ is reigning on the throne. We are looking forward to this promise, guaranteed by God, that we will receive the eternal blessings and rewards for being faithful to him through grief, crying, pain, suffering, and death.
Christ then declares, “It is done!” The destruction of the enemies and salvation of the saints has been accomplished. This work of destroying the enemies and bringing salvation to the world began at the cross, where Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” Christ again identifies himself as the Alpha and Omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He also describes himself as the beginning and end. Jesus began the book of Revelation calling himself the Alpha and Omega in Revelation 1:8. Jesus is the first and the last of all things. This title provides assurance that he will give the promised blessings to his redeemed people. The promise is to give to the thirsty from the spring of living water as a gift. Jesus said these words while on the earth.
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37–39 ESV)
The imagery comes from Isaiah 55:1-2. Now salvation and grace are fully received from Christ as the books are opened and the righteous are rewarded for their trust and faithfulness. The victorious will inherit these blessings and inheritance (Revelation 21:7). The inheritance is theirs. By contrast, the second death awaits those who renounce their faith, who are unbelievers, or who engage in the sins of the world. Those who are cowards likely refers to Christians who refused to serve Jesus even to the death. They loved their lives more than they loved the Lord. They feared the persecution and did not maintain their faith. These along with the sinful of the world will all be thrown into the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. They will experience eternal separation from God. The faithful are longing for a home with the Lord. The faithful hold on to these promises and will not give them up for anything. The reward to come is worth the sacrifices and the suffering of today.
Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:10–11 ESV) (HCSB)