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Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

The New Jerusalem: God Makes Good on Promises

The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse[1] of John, is a strange and wonderful text, and it is no different with this particular passage. With a rich and layered text like this, only a few of its treasures can be uncovered in this short space. I want to explore this text by tracing two important features of Revelation as a whole: its saturation with Old Testament allusions and its closely interwoven imagery throughout the book, where one image shows up only to appear again in a different context. Finally, I will offer some suggestions for approaching this text homiletically.

Reading Echoes of the Old Testament

Revelation is filled to the brim with allusions and imagery from the Old Testament, though, curiously, there is no direct quotation from the Jewish Scriptures. The Apocalypse draws widely from the prophets and the Psalms, but also the books of the law, especially Genesis and Exodus. John’s vision takes the biblical images and reconfigures them, giving them a “rebirth.”[2]

In this passage, a few of these allusions stand out. The theme of creation and new creation runs through chapters 21 and 22—as at the beginning of creation, so also at the end. And yet, this is not simply a return to the pre-Fall condition of things. Where Genesis mentions the creation of the sun and the moon to govern the day and night (Gen 1:14-19), the new creation is governed by the presence of God, and there is no night. Thus, there is “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light” (Rev 21:23). Likewise, just as in Genesis, Revelation mentions a river and the tree of life (Gen 2:9-10; Rev 22:1-2). But again, things are slightly different. This time, instead of a tree of life and a tree of knowledge of good and evil, John’s enigmatic phrasing seems to suggest that there are two trees of life, one “on either side of the river” (22:2).

The picture of the river flowing through the middle of the city calls to mind Psalm 46, where a river “make[s] glad the city of God” (Ps 46:3). The rejoicing at the new creation is congruent with this Psalm, as is the confidence of God as a refuge for those who are undergoing great tumult as the earth shakes and waters roar (Ps 46:1-3, images suggestive of apocalyptic upheaval).

Finally, it is worth noticing that the vantage point for John’s beholding of the descent of the heavenly city is a “great, high mountain” (21:10). This is not an incidental detail, but an important framing device. Mountains play a vital role in the story of the people of God—the mountain of Sinai where God formed a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6; Rev 1:6)—Ararat, where Noah and his family stepped off into a new world, full of possibilities (Gen 8:4)—Mount Moriah, where Abraham learned that Yahweh is not a God who requires human bloodshed, and where Abraham sacrificed, instead of his son, a ram caught in the thicket (Gen 22:1-14)[3]—and Mount Carmel, where Elijah defeated the idolatrous prophets of the false god Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40). All of these mountains are suggestive for the message of Revelation, and the vision of the victory of the heavenly city over the Beasts’s Babylon.

Reverberations from Revelation

A second major feature of the Apocalypse is its tightly woven imagery throughout. Images and events that occur early in the book carry significance and reappear later in surprising or significant ways. Here, in the final vision description, many things that have been foreshadowed or promised receive their fulfillment in the heavenly city.

The kings of the earth come streaming into the city, whose gates are eternally open (21:23-24). This is an active fulfillment of the description of Jesus at the beginning of the book that calls him “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). This image demonstrates that Jesus is not a tyrannical kind of king, ruling not by domination, but by invitation, calling the nations to bring their best into the New Jerusalem.

The lack of need for the sun’s light is another fulfillment of an earlier image. Earlier in the Apocalypse John sees the people of God being led by the Lamb to the new creation. One of the promises given is that the sun will not scorch them (7:16). The Lamb’s gentle but eternally luminous light is their source of vision by day. The Lamb is also said to lead the people to the springs of the water of life, a promise made good by the river of life.

The city is all fulfillment of God and Christ’s promises. In the letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the book, Christ promises various things to those who conquer through faithful witness. Most of those promised things appear in the heavenly city, including the tree of life (2:7; 22:2), authority to rule over nations (2:26-27; 22:5), having one’s name in the book of life (3:5; 21:27), the new Jerusalem coming down from God (3:12; 21:10), and a place with Jesus on his throne (3:21; 22:5). Contrary to interpretations that understand the new creation as a replacement of our world, the return of these images at the end makes clear that the new creation is a fulfilling of God’s promises to all that God has made.

A Homiletical Tour

Preaching this text should involve more than just making these connections between Revelation and the Old Testament or within the book itself. An evocative text like this, full of God making good on promises and expanding our imagination to see everything made new, calls for creative engagement and bold proclamation. At the same time, a text like this can feel far removed from our everyday lives of routine and struggle in the “real world.”

One fruitful way to preach this text would be to take the congregation on a tour of the holy city, just as John is taken on a tour. It may look something like exploring the contours of the new creation, not asking what these images “mean” but how they make us feel, how we respond to hearing these promises fulfilled, what hopes and longings they inspire in us. Approaching the heavenly city this way may help our hearers to inhabit our own cities and towns with fresh perspective and invigorated hope—if this text tells us about the future of every place on earth, then it means it is the future of the places I live and inhabit, the future of every person I encounter.