I thought we were done with the two visions of the descent of the holy city from heaven, but another question has come up, an obvious one. Why are the visions the wrong way round? Why does John first see the descent into the new creation, then the descent into history after the fall of Babylon the great? Why not have the visions in chronological order, climaxing in the new creation at the end of history?
It strikes me that the book of Revelation is well structured. It may have had a complex compositional history, but in its canonical form it’s not just a bunch of semi-intelligible visions thrown carelessly together. So I assume that the author or redactor wanted to bring his readers back from the giddy prospect of a new creation to a view of the future that would have more immediate relevance to such churches as those addressed in chapters 2-3.
These communities believed in Jesus not because they were hoping for new creation but because they were hoping for a new political, cultural, and religious order—a just and holy oikoumenē. The real world matters to us. Jesus was coming soon, bringing recompense with him, “to repay each one for what he has done,” precisely in order to establish that new order (Rev. 3:11; 22:12, 20)—and, of course, with sobering hindsight, I think that we have to understand Christianised Europe, western Christendom, as the fulfilment of that hope.
Anyway, that seems to me to be the main point to make in response to the question. But it occurs to me that there is another way to understand the relationship between the two descent visions, which is to recognise that there is actually only one descent seen from two different perspectives, with quite different implications.
First, the God who is the maker of heaven and earth, the Alpha and Omega, makes all things new, and John sees the holy city coming down out of heaven to be the dwelling place of God with humanity. This vision is on the same apocalyptic level, on the same symbolic scale, as the imprisonment of Satan in the abyss, the first resurrection, the thousand year period, the vanishing of the old creation, the judgment of all the dead, and the lake of fire. John observes it from a great epistemological distance, in a sense, precisely because it is final.
But then he is taken by the angel, in the Spirit, to a high mountain to be shown the city, just he was earlier taken by an angel into the wilderness to see judgment on Rome play out (Rev. 17:1-3).
The overthrow of Babylon the great is described in some detail. Its impact on the politics and economics of the Mediterranean world is vividly evoked: we see the kings of the earth weeping, we hear their lament; the diverse cargo of the merchants is listed, from gold and silver to slaves; shipbuilders and sailors bemoan their loss of business.
In the same fashion, when John sees the city descending at close hand, it takes on a quite different aspect. It becomes a solidly realised construction, a transparent reworking of Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple, in restored Jerusalem, as a measure of the presence of the God of Israel, the God of history, among the nations.
The nations will learn to walk by the “light” of the glory of the one living God and of the Lamb. The old pagan civilisation will give way to a new “Christian” civilisation, with new beliefs, new values. The gates of the city will be always open. The kings of the earth will bring their glory and honour into it, but nothing unclean or detestable or false will be able to enter. The nations are healed—perhaps are repeatedly healed, since this is history—by the leaves of the trees beside the river that rises up beneath the throne of God and flows out of the city.
In other words, it’s John’s way of saying that the final vision also has immediate, in-your-face historical relevance. Ultimately, all things will be put right, absolutely right, but that perfect consummation has to be lived out imperfectly under the particular historical circumstances of late antiquity. The vision inspired the task of constructing a whole new political-religious order, at the heart of which was the priestly service of the churches, in the wake of the collapse of classical paganism.
We are having to do something similar today, in the wake of the collapse of Christendom, of the Christian West, and in the face of a mounting global crisis. We may look to that final vision of a new heaven and a new earth and of a renewed urban ecology, and ask what it means for the priestly witness of the churches. It won’t be what John saw in the pre-Christendom ancient world, but it will have to be no less compelling.