At the end of the book of Revelation John sees the “holy city, (new) Jerusalem” descending out of heaven from God twice, seemingly after the final judgment (Rev. 21:2, 9). Why? Are these different events? The same event depicted twice?
I have argued before that the sequence of visions in chapters 20-21 arrives at a final renewal of creation and then reverts to the more pressing historical outlook of the churches in Asia Minor. I think that in Revelation 21:9-22:21 we are back waiting for the “coming” of the Lord Jesus in a foreseeable future (21:6), not to bring in a new heaven and new earth but to bring recompense (21:12) for the suffering of the churches, defeat pagan Rome, and establish his own rule over the nations throughout the coming ages. In view of some suggestions put to me by a theologian in Japan, I want to try to clarify certain aspects of these shifts in focus.
1. The first point to make is that the judgment and renewal of Revelation 20:11-21:1 constitute the end of human history as the Seer understood it and the beginning of a real new creation.
- Such a fundamental cosmological transformation is not found in the Old Testament, but it is in keeping with strands of Jewish apocalyptic thought and consistent with the New Testament focus resurrection.
- The thousand year period (Rev. 20:4-7) distances the final judgment from the political-religious transformation that would come with the defeat of the great pagan empire.
- There is none of the cosmic disruption here—the traumatic shaking of the powers of heaven—that was expected to accompany historical events (cf. Mk. 13:24-25). Earth and sky merely flee from the presence of the one seated on the throne, and there is no place found for them. This cosmic transformation seems qualitatively different from previous disruptions.
- There is no coming of a Son of Man figure to deliver his followers from their enemies and inaugurate a new kingdom. There is no need for a crucified messiah to rule in a new creation in which there is no more suffering and death.
- All the dead are raised for judgment, including those lost at sea, not just some of those who sleep in the dust of the earth (cf. Dan. 12:2-3), not just the dead in Christ (cf.1 Thess. 4:16), not just the martyrs (Rev. 20:4-6). Death and Hades are destroyed in the lake of fire. When the new heaven and new earth appear, there is no more sea (Rev. 21:1), perhaps because the sea was seen as a uniquely hostile and disruptive environment.
2. The final judgment, the appearance of a new heaven and new earth, and the descent of the “holy city, new Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2-8) belong to the same visionary scene.
- There is no narrative disjunction between 21:1 and 21:2: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw… new Jerusalem….”
- As John watches these things, the one who is seated on the throne of judgment seen in 20:11-12 speaks (21:3, 5), giving assurance that there will be no more sorrow and death and that the churches that conquer in this period of difficult witness will have a share in the life of the new creation. This holds 20:11-21:8 together as one scene.
- The destruction of the wicked in the “lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death,” in 21:8 presumably corresponds to the “second death, the lake of fire” mentioned in 20:15. It repeats the point that such people are excluded from the new heaven and new earth.
3. The description of the “holy city, new Jerusalem” as “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2) identifies it, in the first place, with the community of the martyrs.
- Rome is the “great prostitute… with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality”; she is decked out in gold and jewels and pearls, and clutches a golden cup brimming with abominations and immorality; and she is “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:1-6).
- The marriage of the Lamb and his bride takes place immediately after the judgment of the great prostitute has been celebrated in heaven (Rev. 19:1-8).
- The new Jerusalem is not a prostitute who corrupts and defiles the kings and peoples of the oikoumenē, the nations in its sphere of influence; she is a pure bride, devoted to the Lamb, clothed in the “righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:7-8).
4. At Revelation 21:9, however, we encounter a well marked transition in the visionary narrative. One of the seven angels with the plague bowls carries John away from the final judgment scene to a “great, high mountain” in order to show him “the bride, the wife of the Lamb… the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
- The reappearance of one of the angels of God’s wrath against Rome comes as a bit of a shock at this point. After the final judgment of the dead and the appearance of a new heaven and new earth from which all wickedness and suffering and even death itself have been banished, we are jerked sharply back to the earlier chaotic narrative of the overthrow of the idolatrous and depraved empire.
- The journey “in the Spirit” to have a proper look at the “holy city, Jerusalem” is the happy counterpart to John’s earlier journey, also in the company of “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls,” also in the Spirit, into the wilderness to see the “judgment of the great prostitute” (Rev. 17:1-3). The point of the parallel is obvious: an old order, a decadent civilisation, will be destroyed, and will be replaced by a shiny new one.
- That it is only the “holy city, Jerusalem” that descends from heaven at this juncture perhaps dissociates it from the “new Jerusalem” that descended to be part of the new heaven and new earth (21:2).
5. It is important to note that John is taken to the “wilderness” of the Roman world to be shown the overthrow of Babylon the great; angels come down from heaven to execute judgment (Rev. 17-18). Then he hears the celebrations of this victory in heaven (19:1-10). Then heaven is opened and he sees a sequence of visionary events that runs from the judgment and rule of the nations by the Word of God, through the thousand year period, to the final judgment and remaking of creation (19:11-21:8). The descent of the holy city is seen first as part of the new creation slide show projected in heaven, then as a “real world” event that takes place not in the wilderness of Rome but at a great mountain.
6. The angel of God’s wrath against Rome wants to “show” to Daniel the temporal reality of the city which he first saw from a cosmological distance.
- The great high mountain on which the holy city descends contrasts with the “seven mountains on which the woman is seated” (Rev. 17:9). The mountain is, of course, mount Zion. Perhaps John thought that the site of the ruined Jerusalem would become the centre of the restored priestly people of the living God.
- Although the city is again the “bride, the wife of the Lamb,” when John is brought there “in the Spirit,” it becomes a detailed, close-up re-working of Ezekiel’s lengthy and meticulously delineated vision of the new Jerusalem and temple (Ezek. 40:1-47:12): the hand of the Lord “brought me to the land of Israel, and set me down on a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south” (Ezek. 40:2).
- This is not a new creation vision. It is a vision of restored Israel, having been regathered from the nations after the exile. The pagan nations continue to exist, but they will be healed by the presence of the new Jerusalem in their midst (cf. Ezek. 47:12). John’s vision is much the same, the chief difference being that the physical temple has been replaced by the glory of the Lamb—the reputation and presence of Jesus among the nations, which will walk by this theological light and be healed by the leaves of the trees that grow beside the river that flows from the city (Rev. 21:22-22:5).
- In this city the servants of God will “reign for ever and ever,” corresponding to the priestly reign of the resurrected martyrs with Christ throughout the thousand year period that separates the overthrow of Babylon the great from the final judgment (Rev. 21:4-6). Rule and kingdom are required only while there is sin and opposition. Nothing unclean or detestable will enter the city, but disorder and injustice will still be present in the world.
7. So the key to the inclusion of two descending city visions in Revelation 21 has to be found in the intention of the angel of judgment. The city exists in heaven as a righteous and holy alternative to Rome because of the faithfulness of the witnessing churches. It features in John’s vision of a final new creation because Jerusalem is the natural expression of the presence of God among people (Rev. 21:3).
But the angel of judgment against Rome wants John also to understand, in the appropriate symbolic forms, that thorough its sufferings the community of witness will also give birth eventually to a new political-religious order on earth, replacing the corrupt pagan system, at the heart of which a renewed priestly people will serve the living God. In Revelation 21:2 John sees in a vision of heaven opened (19:11) the new creation ideal; in 21:9 he is shown from an earthly perspective the immediate historical reality.