Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.” (NKJV)
While a number of interpreters consider this passage to be descriptive of heaven itself, what John saw was “coming down out of heaven.” Others have concluded that the vision symbolically depicts the church on earth, even though the imagery seems more heavenly than earthly.
Deciphering the Symbolism
John saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” a description comparable to 2 Peter 3:5-13, borrowed from Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22.1 When the words “heaven(s) and earth” are used together in scripture, the phrase typically refers to the physical realm of human inhabitance, inclusive of sunlight, rain, oxygen, and terra firma (Isa. 51:6; Jer. 51:48; Joel 3:16; Matt. 24:31, 35; Heb. 1:10-11). While our literal dwelling place (the physical cosmos) will ultimately pass away (Matt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:7-12), it serves as a figure for the new, spiritual realm prepared by God for his people.2
John saw “the holy city, New Jerusalem,” which elsewhere symbolizes the church [ekklēsía] enrolled in heaven but also the future heavenly home (Heb. 11:10-16; 12:22-23). What John saw was “prepared as a bride,” which is descriptive of the church (Rev. 19:7-8; cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27), a spiritual entity that will endure through eternity (Eph. 3:21; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). God dwelling with his people is both a current reality (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:22) and a future expectation (1 Cor. 15:24; Phil. 1:23; 3:20). And what about the former things passing away as all things are made new, including the removal of tears, death, sorrow, crying, and pain?
Tension Between Now and Not Yet
The Lord promises, right now: “whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die …” (John 11:26); “… in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22); “even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ …” (Eph. 2:5); “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward [man] is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory …. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 4:16–5:17); “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope …. Rejoice always” (1 Thess. 4:13; 5:16).
Nevertheless, we still anticipate the future: “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven …” (Matt. 5:12); “For we were saved in this hope …. we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24-25); “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20); “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:3-7). Therefore, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2).
Is the “New Jerusalem” a symbol of the church or a symbol of heaven? Yes it is! To be part of one is to be included in the other. All faithful members of Christ’s body have their names registered in heaven (Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:27). God’s manifold blessings are available both “now in this time … and in the age to come” (Mark 10:29-30).
--Kevin L. Moore
2 See also New Heavens and New Earth.
Related Posts: Measuring the Heavenly City (Rev. 21:16), Introducing the Book of Revelation Part 3, Matthew's Curious Account
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