I started out with the intention of explaining what appears to be the persistence of bad things and bad people in the new heaven and new earth described in Revelation 21-22. John tells us that the gates of the new Jerusalem that is seen descending from God will never be shut, but “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Rev. 21:27). That seems to imply that these things will still exist in this brave new world, they just won’t be permitted entry into the holy city. Wasn’t all evil destroyed in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14; 21:8)? Something of a conundrum, you’ll agree.
Since I also need to prepare some lecture materials on Revelation, I thought I’d set out—not for the first time, but with some differences of emphasis—what I take to be the basic narrative structure of the visions. I offer little in the way of detailed justification for the shape of the narrative—this is an attempt to see the wood rather than the trees. At the end, I will suggest that the second vision of the new Jerusalem is not part of the new heaven and new earth, and I will give some brief reflections on how to make sense of it historically. The linked posts will back up the argument to some extent, or check out the two chapters on Revelation in my book The Coming of the Son of Man.
The purpose of the book of Revelation is stated in the first few verses. God has given its revelatory content to Jesus so that he can “show to his servants the things that must soon take place”. The content was conveyed to John by an angel, and by writing down what he “saw” John now communicates it to those who will hear it read aloud.
The first martyr, one like a son of man (1:4-20)
In the opening vision Jesus is presented as the first of the martyrs to be raised from the dead, who has become “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). He is Daniel’s “one like a son of man”, who suffered and was killed, but who has been given authority—authority over death most importantly—and who will be seen “coming with the clouds of heaven”. On that day the people of Jerusalem and the tribes of the land of Israel will recognise the one who was pierced and will mourn on account of him (Rev. 1:7; cf. Matt. 24:30; Zech. 12:10). This martyred but exalted Christ instructs John to write what he sees.
Letters to the seven churches (2-3)
The visions are to be communicated to the seven churches (perhaps actual communities which together represent the persecuted church as a whole), which receive brief letters from Christ in chapters 2-3. The churches are facing various obstacles and challenges and in each case are exhorted to persevere in their faith in the coming rule of Christ over the nations. Those who are faithful unto death will “conquer”, will live, and will share in that kingdom (cf. Rev. 2:26).
Who is worthy to open the scroll to reveal what must soon take place (4-5)?
John is now taken up into heaven to see what must soon take place (Rev. 4:1). The revelation of future events is contained in the scroll that is in the right hand of God (Rev. 5:1). At first it appears that there is no one present who is worthy to open this scroll and make its content accessible. But then a Lamb is seen “standing, as though it had been slain”, and there is general agreement among the heavenly hosts that this Lamb alone is worthy to open the scroll.
The seven seals and the conditions for judgment against Israel (6-8)
The opening of the seven seals on the scroll puts in place the conditions for judgment on Israel. The four horsemen of judgment are unleashed: a conquering king (Vespasian), warfare, economic chaos, and death through violence, famine, disease, and the beasts of the earth (Rev. 6:2-8). The Jewish martyrs cry out for vindication; everyone else expresses great alarm at the coming “wrath of the Lamb”; the servants of God in Judea are sealed against the coming destruction; and a great multinational crowd of people of who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb praises God for the coming salvation. There is a dramatic pause in heaven before the final seal is opened; everyone takes a deep breath.
The seven trumpets (8-11)
The blowing of the first six trumpets marks the buildup to the destruction of Jerusalem, which is “given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months” (Rev. 11:2). But John has also been given a little scroll, because he must “prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Rev. 10:11). The seventh trumpet heralds the establishment of the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ”, who will reign for ever and ever. The nations raged, but the “destroyers of the land” of Israel (i.e., Rome) will themselves be destroyed and God’s servants will be vindicated and rewarded.
Coincidentally, Scot McKnight today posted a summary of Craig Koester’s reading of this passage. Koester thinks that these are “what if?” visions:
The trumpet visions now reply to the prayers by implicitly raising a question: What if God responds to the prayers by sending wrath on the unrepentant world? What will that accomplish? Readers are shown the horror of pitiless wrath as disasters strike earth, sea, and sky, and demonic hordes of locusts and cavalry torment humanity amid clouds of fire, smoke, and sulfur (8:7-9:21).
He then notes that the “wrath accomplishes nothing”; the wicked refuse to repent (Rev. 9:20-21). So we get an interlude (Rev. 10-11): “God has delayed bringing justice for the deaths of the faithful in order that his people might continue bearing witness to the unrepentant world”. Clearly, Koester would like to defend God against the charge of violence and vindictiveness.
But the interlude has to do with Jerusalem, not the world, and Jerusalem suffered a violent fate. The six trumpets that have been blown constitute the prelude to the destruction of the city, corresponding to the “wars and rumours of wars”, the portents of coming disaster, the tribulation suffered by the disciples, and the increase in lawlessness that would precede the demolition of the temple (Matt. 24:5-15). But the leaders of the revolt in Jerusalem refused to repent. So the city was handed over to the nations to be trampled under foot.
The allegory of the dragon and the judgment of the one like a son of man (12-14)
The story of the emergence of the church and its witness against pagan imperialism is told in chapters 12-14, effectively as a reworking of Daniel 7. The two beasts of imperial power gain their authority from the dragon, which is Satan. The first beast from the sea, like the little horn on the head of Daniel’s fourth beast from the sea, utters blasphemies against God and makes war against the saints. Three angels proclaim an “eternal gospel” of judgment against Babylon the great, which is Rome, the fount and hub of idolatrous practice; the saints are called to endure; those who are martyred during this period of ferocious conflict will be blessed (Rev. 14:6-13). The “one like a son of man”, seated on a cloud, is instructed by an angel (this is clearly of some christological significance) to swing his sickle and reap the harvest of judgment against the oppressor.
The destruction of Babylon the great (15-19)
Angels pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God on the earth. Now the intertextual echoes point not to Jerusalem but to the imperial aggressor. One of these angels takes John to witness the judgment of the “great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk” (Rev. 17:1–2). The woman is not Rome as aggressive military power but Rome as a degenerate moral culture by which the peoples of the Greek-Roman world have been corrupted. The marriage supper of the Lamb is a celebration of the eventual triumph of the saints, dressed in their “righteous deeds”, over satanically inspired pagan Rome.
The thousand years and a final putting right of creation (20-21:8)
With the overthrow of pagan Rome Satan is captured and confined to the abyss for a thousand years: in John’s vision Satan is exclusively associated with Rome’s violent opposition to the church. The martyrs are raised in a “first resurrection” and reign with Christ throughout the thousand years. At the end of this period there will be a short-lived recrudescence of satanic aggression against the church. Then John sees a second resurrection, this time of all the dead, not only of the martyrs, a final judgment, and the destruction of all workers of evil, along with death and Hades, in the lake of fire, which is the second death. There follows a vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the descent of the new Jerusalem from God. This will be the “heritage”—perhaps exclusively—of those who conquered death in the period of dangerous witness leading up to the fall of Babylon the great (Rev. 21:7).
Another vision of the new Jerusalem (21:9-22:5)
Remember that it was one of the seven angels with the seven bowls of God’s wrath against Rome who took John to see the judgment of the great prostitute? Well, it is one of these angels again who takes John to see “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb”—a second vision of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:10).
I suggest that this is not simply a repeat of the vision of 21:2. It is a symbolic depiction, drawing on descriptions of the restored city and temple in the prophets, of what will replace Babylon the great in the thousand year period. This is why we are told that the nations will walk by its light, the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, nothing that is unclean, no one who is “detestable or false”, will enter into it, nothing “accursed” will be found in it, and the leaves of the trees that grow on the banks of the river that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb will be “for the healing of the nations”.
The dependence of the passage on Zechariah 14:6-15 LXX suggests that it belongs to an account of how God becomes “king over all the earth”—when there will be no night, living water will flow from Jerusalem, there will be no more “anathema” in the city, the Lord will cut off the peoples who waged war against Jerusalem, the gold and silver of the surrounding peoples will be brought into the city, and the survivors of the nations that came against Jerusalem “shall also go up year after year to do obeisance to the King, the Lord Almighty”. This is a transformed historical landscape, not a new heaven and a new earth.
Jesus is coming soon
The final section takes us back to the beginning and the assurance given to the struggling persecuted churches of Asia Minor that the “time is near”, that “he is coming with the clouds” (Rev. 1:3, 7). Christ, who is the “one like a son of man”, is “coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Rev. 22:12). At this moment those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb will gain access to the “tree of life”, corresponding to the first resurrection of the martyrs in 20:4. The tree of life is in the second new Jerusalem vision (Rev. 21:2). What is being described here is not the final remaking of all things, the final destruction of death—I make the point repeatedly that the parousia marks the end of the age of pagan dominance of the people of God, not the end of history. What is being described, in an optimistic apocalyptic idiom, is the church in history as the restored place of God’s presence, a place of healing for the nations formerly brutalised by Rome.
A flawed enterprise
Obviously, the church did not live up to expectations, and some will see that as the fatal weakness of this line of interpretation. To my mind, however, the historical coordinates of John’s visionary narrative are so powerful that the only alternative must be to say that he was wrong, that his vision of the establishment of a new Jerusalem in the place of beastly pagan Rome came to nothing.
He expected the reign of the first martyr Jesus Christ to begin directly after the fall of decadent pagan Rome. He believed that a new restored and glorious Jerusalem, presumably a symbol for the multinational church, now at liberty to function safely on earth, would mediate the healing political presence of the living God to the traumatised nations of the empire.
The Old Testament teaches us—as does the New Testament under rather different conditions—that the “people of God” is always going to be a flawed enterprise. So I think that our best hermeneutic is to read the prophetic-apocalyptic visions that we find in Revelation for the most part as overstatements about the experience of the church in history.