Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
At the end of this most remarkable book comes this even more remarkable final vision. Although John stops using his characteristic ‘And I saw’, almost as if this is beyond experience and description. It can be read in isolation from the rest of the book –I read it, through tears, at my father’s funeral – but it cannot be understood in isolation from what has gone before, both in Revelation and in the whole of Scripture.
As before, John does his theology through numbers, structures, and lists. This extraordinary (and, literally, impossible) giant cube-city is a new holy of holies – not one that is a single part of a single temple in a single city in a single country in the world, but encompassing the world itself. This is the holy presence of God on a truly cosmic scale.
The exact details of what John sees are impossible to make sense of – but their significance is to be found in his re-use of Old Testament imagery. This city is not just the counterpoint to all failed human aspiration to transcendence and significance, but fulfils the specific hope of the people of God as they longed to see themselves returned home from exile and longed to see God’s name glorified once more.
The city that shines with the glory of God is (with its walls reaching to the skies) the ultimate place of security and peace. Its splendour and magnificence are without compare, dwarfing all human measures of extravagance. It’s the home for the beautifully adorned bride of the lamb; it is the home of the priestly people of God; it is the place where the created order is restored to its original splendour.
But just as 1 Corinthians 13 was not written for weddings, so this passage was not written for funerals. John is offering this as the daily hope for his readers, then and now. We are God’s temple which is the place of his dwelling; we have had the Spirit poured out on and in us; we are the priestly people of God, mediating between God and the world, and offering up to God those who come to know him through our testimony. God’s call to you, today, this week, is to live out the future in the present – to live out the (partly realised) vision of the heavenly city so that others might be drawn to it.
Ian is a biblical scholar and theologian. He is Associate Minister at St Nic’s, Nottingham, and writes the widely-read blog psephizo.com. His commentary on Revelation will be published by IVP in April 2018.