John of Patmos’ description of the holy city has been immensely comforting to me this week as I sat at the bedside of my dying father. It’s the promise of a new heaven and new earth. It’s the most creation-centered end times picture we have in the Bible.
This vision is the polar opposite of the world John knew; a world that was dominated by the Roman Empire, whom John refers to as Babylon in the book of Revelation. John predicts its fall because it had a stranglehold on everything: politics, commerce and religion.
Rome maintained peace through violence and intimidation. It channeled prosperity to a few people on top while most people lived in a society filled with poverty and injustice. Rome also had a reputation for overexploiting natural resources, and destroying the environment. They also wanted everyone to worship and pay tribute to the emperor who was given god-like status. John knew that such abuses would result in a nation that would eventually destroy itself, which is what happened.
However, John did not leave his hearers without any hope. For those who remained faithful to God, and to Christ the Lamb, for those who refused to bow down to Roman values, John offered an alternative vision of the kind of commonwealth God had in mind.
This vision begins in Chapter 21 with these stirring words: “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, the 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, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'” [Rev 21:1-5]
God’s promise to make all things new is a comfort I’ve held onto this week as I watched my Dad struggle with an old, worn out body. Anyone who has wrestled with a chronic illness, knows how fragile our bodies actually are. We might think they are strong and vibrant, but all of that can change in an instant. Thankfully, God’s promise to make all things new reminds us we will exchange these earthen vessels for ones that are built to last for eternity. This is definitely good news for all of us.
In the midst of John’s promise to make all things new, God also promises to “dwell” with us. This Hebrew word means “to tabernacle,” or “set up a tent” in our midst. It calls to mind the portable worship tent the Israelites carried with them while they were living in the wilderness. God was essentially camping out with them, as if we could go over to the Almighty’s tent and share a cup of coffee. It’s a picture of God as one who lives in community with God’s people. The Eternal One does not dwell in some distant heaven, looking at us from afar. God is up close and personal. It’s an intimate an accessible view of God that we should treasure.
This promise of God “dwelling” or “tabernacling” with us is same promise given to us by the other John in his gospel: “And the word because flesh and dwelt [or tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory, The glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth…And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. [Jn 1:14,16]
Therefore, I see John of Patmos’ vision of God dwelling with us as a promise that is meant for us to experience right here and right now, as well as some future time when we all live in the New Jerusalem. I have felt God’s dwelling with me this week as I walked with my Dad through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It came in the form of small kindnesses from the hospital staff; from prayers and words of support. It came in the form of a peaceful presence that took up residence in my Dad’s hospital room.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I’m sure you’ve encountered this presence in times of sorrow and loss. God’s promise to dwell with us is as real as it gets. We can count on it in good times as well as bad.
John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth, continues in Chapter 22 with a description of what the New Jerusalem looks like. The imagery is of Eden restored: “Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s main street. On each side of the river is the tree of life, which produces twelve crops of fruit, bearing its fruit each month. The tree’s leaves are for the healing of the nations.”
Those who are attending my Revelation Bible study, may recall that 12 is an important Biblical number. It is symbolic of divine government and rule and calls to mind the 12 tribes of Israel as well as the 12 apostles. What I believe John is telling us is that this life-giving river, along with the twelve trees, are capable of healing every illness, every inequality, every exploitation, every evil we have inflicted on each other, and on creation.
Therefore, the New Jerusalem is more than just a pretty place to lay our weary heads. It’s the place where we will be healed and renewed. It’s the place where God’s reign of justice and peace will finally be realized on earth as it is in heaven.
Friends in Christ, sign me up for that! It’s the home I’ve longed for ever since those baptismal waters flowed from the river of life and across my forehead: “David Wilson Eck, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It’s the home that has a place prepared for my Dad; one of those “dwelling places” Jesus talked about, or “mansions” if you like the King James Version. It’s the place where we will no longer be alienated from each other, or from creation. Harmony will be restored. Love will reign. Grace upon grace will continue to flow through all eternity, forever and ever. Amen!
So those are some of the thoughts that have been running through my mind this week. Perhaps they’ve been running through yours as well! I have friends who are still cleaning up from the damage that hurricanes have inflicted on their homes and their communities. I have friends who are wrestling with illnesses of body, mind and spirit. I have friends who are just plain worn out from raising kids or working jobs that are sucking the life out of them. I have friends who feel overwhelmed by the craziness we see on the nightly news. I have friends who are working two jobs and are still struggling to pay the bills and provide for their families.
Perhaps, you are one of these friends! If this is the case, if you are weary and carrying heavy burdens like me, I pray that John’s vision of the New Jerusalem will fill you with hope. I pray that it will comfort you as you try to survive as strangers and aliens living in the Babylon.
God promises us in the book of Revelation that the battle has already been won. It’s a done deal. These kingdoms of inequality and brutality will perish one day. Whatever things we have done to abuse and exploit our beloved planet, will be healed. The New Jerusalem will, one day, be our permanent residence.
In the meantime, we can find hope in the signs of God’s commonwealth that appear all around us. Signs of grace upon grace. Signs of love, mercy, justice and peace. These signs are the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. They are a foretaste of the feast to come. They reminds us of what we have to look forward to as citizens of the New Jerusalem. AMEN.
Copyright ©2017 David Eck