Studying Revelation 21 1-9

This week, we embark on a four-week tour of the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. These are the chapters of the book that announce and describe the “new heaven and the new earth,” so this material really rounds out our summer’s focus on God’s new creation. We are studying Revelation 21:1-9 this week, and will continue on, lectio continua fashion, over the following four weeks. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text comes as the climax of the vision of John – whichever John it is – which begins in chapter 1. Messages tailored to each of the seven churches in “Asia” make up the first three chapters of the book. “Asia” here is Asia minor, that is, modern day Turkey. (The churches listed are those at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Some of these cities would reportedly have been centers of the cult of the Roman Emperor. There’s a decent summary article, with a very clear map, on Wikipedia.) The messages themselves are delivered by a mystical figure who seems clearly to be Christ himself.

Then, John is transported through a suddenly revealed – by being opened – door into heaven. He sees the heavenly worship taking place, and then watches a series of cataclysmic events unfold. A scroll is unsealed, angels blow on trumpets, a woman clothed with the sun does battle with a dragon, a beast oppresses the earth, more angels pour out bowls full of plagues, ecological disaster spreads over the earth … If this text had been written in the early twentieth century we would call it surrealism. Since it seems to hail from the late first century, however, and participates in the relevant conventions of the genre of apocalyptic, we call it that – apocalyptic.

Most of us have heard of “fire and brimstone” preaching, may even have heard some actual “fire and brimstone” preaching at one time or another, and likely have some views on the matter of such preaching, whether pro or con. The image of “fire and brimstone” is closely associated with Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament (Genesis 19:24), where it was a one-time thing, and with the lake burning with fire and sulfur (brimstone) in the book of Revelation, where it is more everlasting.  (See Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:14-15, and 21:8.) Either way, it’s a vivid image of divine retribution for profound evil-doing. [Here’s a nice clean scientific demonstration of burning sulfur, which manages to give a sense for why this phenomenon would capture the imagination.]

Revelation 21:1-6 shows up in the lectionary for New Year’s Day, every year, as well as for All Saints’ Day Year B, and the Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C. Verses 7 and 8, however, are something we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. There is no lake of fire in the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, be really warned. Although for that matter, if anyone asked you where to find the lake of fire in the Bible, wouldn’t you guess the book of Revelation? Even if you hadn’t read it? So for the purposes of the Bible Content Exam, you’d be OK.

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CLOSER READING: In v1, I know from experience it bothers some people to hear “the sea was no more.” To be honest, I’m not too keen on the sea being no more myself. That’s if we’re thinking in terms of heavenly real estate, in which case a nice little beachfront cottage would be a really appealing one of those many mansions. And that’s only if we’re forgetting that in heaven we will be fully occupied singing God’s praise, so the real estate aspect will not matter to us much at that point.

As long as we think of the sea as a Biblical symbol of horrid disorder and chaos, we will be able to feel its absence as good and not bad.

I have a few more words on the contrast of the new holy city Jerusalem with the just-defeated unholy Babylon here, from our earlier study of Revelation 19:1-8.

In v3, the visionary John has described the throne and the one seated on it back in chapter 4. The great voice, then, seems to be the voice of God.

The announcement, however, presents God in the third person. Is this because, even though God dwells with human beings, there’s still some essential – inescapable – distance? Something to think about.

God’s home among human beings (anthrōpoi) is literally a tent or tabernacle, and God’s (future tense) dwelling with them is literally tenting or living in a tent with them. This will remind us of the tent-like dwelling among us of the Word in John 1, and of God’s even earlier dwelling with the Israelites on the journey to the promised land.

We might note that this amounts to a repudiation of the [destroyed, at the time of John’s writing] Temple in Jerusalem. That repudiation will become explicit in Revelation 21:22. God never really liked the idea of that Temple anyway! (See 2 Samuel 7:6-7.) Here in the new creation, the common life of God and the Lamb is the Temple! Notice that this makes the Temple look like an emblem of idolatry, and that this is consistent with the thesis of the highly worthwhile book by Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: the Creation of the Bible and the Talmuds.

The instruction in v5 to “write this” seems to mean something like we would mean if we said “I’m putting that in the calendar in ink.” That is, there’s something permanent about this.

In v6, “It is done” is a completed action. Alpha and Omega most of us probably know, from having been told and from having seen them on church vestments, are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. So, The Speaker encompasses all possible speech, words, knowledge … The end, of “the beginning and the end,” is the purposive kind of end, the destination or goal kind. Not just an arbitrary cut-off kind of end.

The thirsty, and the conqueror in v7, are grammatically singular characters. This might mean that there is a specific individual in God’s mind. Or, it might not. The “specific individual” meaning is easier for me to imagine in v7, with the one who conquers. That would seem to be a good description of Christ. In v6, however, “the one thirsting” does not seem to fit Christ nearly as well. Alternatively, it might mean that the singular figure is an emblem for a group, so that what’s being said here is, in effect, “to whoever thirsts,” or even, “whoever conquers.”

The giving of the water of life is a future action.

This arrangement of tenses seems [to me] to suggest the familiar [in the New Testament] structure of “already-not yet” – the new creation is done, already, but the giving of the water of life is not yet complete.

The list of those to be consigned to the lake burning with fire and sulfur – along with the beast and the Devil and Death and Hades, who have already wound up in there – bears a striking resemblance to the list of enemies of the seven churches that are in Asia we could compile from reading chapters 1-3. In particular, the liars seem to be a significant problem for some of the churches – people claiming to be Apostles who aren’t, false teachers, etc. Thinking of it that way might make us a little less nervous about getting too close to the lake ourselves. Might.

Mainly, we want to be written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life. But we would want that even without the lake of fire, I think.

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Verse 9 seems, honestly, to belong with next week’s text.

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Images: “Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” (detail), Natalia Goncharova, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Four and Twenty Elders,” William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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