All Saints Day is perhaps the most fitting day to contemplate the General Resurrection other than Easter itself. Popular imaginations about the goal of Christianity, however, tend to shortchange the resurrection in order to spend more ink contemplating where, and what kind of place those saints who have already gone to sleep are waiting in. Fortunately, the lectionary pulls forward Revelation 21:1-6 on All Saints Day, to help us regain our focus. However, as with much of Revelation, the message is mixed in with some first-century Jewish symbols that are not always apparent to us. Verse 1 in particular uses an image that doesn’t translate well, so it’s probably best we talk about that image first:
Revelation 21:1–6 (NASB95)
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.
Modern transportation methods, as well as modern irrigation, plumbing, and food distribution have profoundly reshaped the human relationship with water in our world. So as a modern person reading that the sea is going to dry up, especially if that reader is prone to take John the Revelator too literally, then this does not sound like a good thing; the sea and its coasts are insanely important to life on earth, and the home to most of our planet’s biodiversity. Why would God’s new earth just oust such a central part of the experience of living on earth?
Well, if you were an ancient person; chances are better than half that you live in (relatively) close proximity to the sea, the ocean, or an otherwise large body of water; typically at the point where a river empties. For that ancient person, the waters flowing out of the mouth of the river are a source of life and security. But looking out on the vast expanse of the sea, occasionally churning under the influence of the last giants earth has to offer, giants you’ve never seen more than a terrifying glimpse or shadow of, that water is death. To drink it could mean death. To sail over it could mean death. To get swept away into it could mean death. The things living out there could mean death.
There is a reason that more than one, unrelated ancient culture developed a cosmology that thought of the ocean or the space beneath it as the place you go when you die. That is the case of the Hebrew Sheol; the Jewish place of the dead, often translated into Greek as ‘Hades’. The Hebrew Bible also associates the sea with the pre-created chaos waters that God split to make room for life in Genesis 1. Sheol is envisioned as being wrapped in the ‘pillars of the earth’ in the deepest depths of that ancient chaos water. Hades was envisioned to be a place surrounded by impassable, one-way rivers that each symbolized some aspect of death. These places are not to be confused with later, western understandings of Hell, which is not a neutral place of death like Sheol and Hades.
When John says the sea is going to dry up in the new creation, he’s not concerned with the physical ocean nearly as much as what the ocean represents. The new creation is untouched by chaos and death. The monsters, the mysterious, insurmountable giants of our world; famine, plague, injustice, iniquity, and the human sins they stem from; all these will have no place in the resurrected Heaven and Earth. And not only that, but the boundaries between heaven and earth will break open once again; and not in a limited sense as they did in first the Tabernacle, then the Temple, and currently in the gathering of believers; but completely:
2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
5And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.
And now that we know what sea John sees getting dried up, the unity of that part of the vision, with this drying of tears is more plain to see. We should also not miss where God’s throne rests in the resurrected creation. His throne is not in a separate plane of existence; remote and unapproachable. God’s throne comes to the resurrected Earth where He will live with and among humans on the world as it should have been. The New Jerusalem is the fulfillment of what the Garden of Eden should have become; a place where humans meet with the very presence of the Living God, and rule creation alongside Him.
At the end of the passage water comes up one more time; but this time it isn’t the chaotic waters of death, but the spring of the water of life which we are told elsewhere flows from God’s own seat of authority. This again is not meant to be seen as a physical river so much as God’s life flowing out and watering the world; satisfying the thirsty, and raising new life on the parched Earth, raising it from the drought of death it had been subject to since the exile from the Garden.
The world began with God parting death and chaos to make room for life; watering the ground with springs of life. The world will end in resurrection, when God once again breaks through death and chaos to make room for life to start again. It is not without purpose that we are told that Christ rose from the dead wielding the keys to death and the grave. When we follow Christ in death, by being submerged in the waters of our baptism, we are raised from the death of sin to a life in Christ; our sins locked in the grave where they belong, and ourselves freed from death by His grace and His covenant faithfulness. We may still be waiting for the final resurrection on the last day, but we are invited through baptism, of water and of spirit, into the resurrection life now. So we ought to live like those who are being raised into God’s kingdom of abundance and grace. We ought to reject the mindset of scarcity of this fallen world which calls us to withhold our blessings for ourselves when God is calling us to give freely as we have been freely given. Christ longs to make the kingdom a reality in us now, and obedience to His call is our path to experience the blessings of the kingdom even now. May the Spirit strengthen us to listen.