Revelation 21: 1-6
Because the young and engaging Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans died just two weeks ago at age 37, I bought my second book of hers to read: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, In it I found a striking parallel to our passage for today. Listen:
The people of Israel had once boasted of a king, a temple, and a great expanse of land—all of which they believed had been given to them by God and ensured to them forever. But in the sixth century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar [of Babylon] laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying both the city and its temple. Many of the Jews who lived there were taken captive and forced into the empire’s service. Others remained, but without a king, or a place of worship, without a national identity.
Israel had already gone through a national calamity in its history, creating a religious, political, and social crisis. But Jerusalem and the Temple had been rebuilt afterwards. It stood proudly until 70 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans. And to this day, it has never been rebuilt! The Western Wall in modern day Jerusalem is the last above-ground vestige of that holy edifice. Today’s passage is about New Jerusalem.
Remember that John wrote Revelation about 95 AD, 20 years after Jerusalem fell along with the temple. Today we have a lot of ground to cover since last week’s sermon ended with chapter 7. Today in chapter 8, the seventh seal is opened and there is a half-hour of silence followed by seven angels and seven trumpets, coupled with plagues and extreme events of nature. Those were meant to terrify John’s guards. Then there was a burning star, perhaps like a meteor, landing on the earth, making the waters putrid. Even though C.S. Lewis called a junior tempter to the devil “Wormwood” in The Screwtape Letters, here Wormwood is named after the name of a strong and deadly plant of the same name, referenced in Proverbs 5: 3-4, Lamentations 3:19, and in Jeremiah 9:15. There is then the naming of a woe coming upon the earth with the appearance like a plague of locusts. It is suggested that their king is from the bottomless pit of Sheol and the king’s name is Appollyn, or “destroyer.” These fearful warnings are woes to frighten the faithless and to comfort the faithful. John hoped they would recognize the stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt after God delivering plague after plague against Pharaoh and his people. Then he references an Ezekiel 2:8- 3:3 passage where God commanded to eat a little scroll. Following suit, Jesus asks John to pick up a little scroll, saying “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach but sweet as honey to your mouth.” (Rev. 10:9.) That was to say, “what you are enduring now is bitter, but the outcome will be sweet.” Next in chapter 11, the Temple was measured as if to see the dimensions for its re-creation! That was a hopeful message! Was it to be a rebuild? Yes, but in a different place. It was to become a new Jerusalem! The seventh angel blew his trumpet and he said what Handel captured for us forever: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and eh shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev. 11:15) Then “The twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God! ….” “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. (Rev. 11:16;19.) John again reminded his readers of the powerful words from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk.“The Lord is in his Holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Hab 2:20) What a drama these letters contain!
Now we get to some of the characters: The woman in chapter 12 sounds like she could be Mary, but remember, most references are from the Hebrew Bible. So, scholars say the woman is a heavenly representative of God’s people, whose prophet Isaiah declared, “for unto us a child is born”. A dragon appears, clearly called the Devil and Satan in chapter 12:9, and there is a depiction of a cosmic war. But remember, the underlying theme of this book never lets the devil win! The theme is: God wins; Satan loses. So we let this drama play out without being sucked into its dreadful images.
Chapter 13 is the famous one of the beast rising out of the sea. The horns in this case indicated the brute force by which the emperors had claimed their territories. They had 10 diadems, or crowns, to indicate they were the most ruthless of the 12 Roman Caesars. The seven heads on the beast (who is human) indicated that the emperor drew his evil power form the seven-headed dragon, who we learned was Satan. Revelation 13’s most famous passage is verse 18: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty six.” Oh my goodness how much ink and film has been spent on that verse! Hebrew letters had numerical equivalents; John knew that and the people in the 7 churches knew that! They just had to figure out who he was describing. Through the ages writers have pointed to evil men like Adolf Hitler and said he was 666. He was evil, but not the one John was describing. In the 1980s some cryptologists wrongly said it added up to the name of a good man—Ronald Reagan—saying he was 666. Nonsense. 666 was the number for “Neron Caesar,” the most horrible emperor to Christians in recent memory. The alternate number in your Bibles, 616, indicated the more colloquial title of the emperor, “Nero Caesar.” John was saying “Remember how Nero had his life end in disgrace and humiliation? So it will happen with this emperor, (Domitian) too!” There has been so much publishing and film money raked in over such nonsensical identifications of John’s mystery beast through the ages.
Chapters 14 includes the wonderful verse you often hear at burials: A voice from heaven said: “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their words do follow them.” That is the comfort for the faithful. For those who are not faithful, we get the image from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” based on Revelation 14: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Rev. 14:14-20 is not good news from any enemies of God! Chapter 15 contains the “glassy sea” references in the beloved hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which was another image to comfort the faithful. But then seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out on those who seek to hurt God’s children in chapter 16! Just as all Jews remembered that Babylon fell along with Nebuchadnezzar ages before, here John equates Babylon with Rome, the city with its “seven hills.” She is depicted as a harlot, drunk with excesses in chapter 17. In chapter 18, Babylon—Rome—is about to fall. The merchants begin weeping as the coins they have to use have the face of the beast on them- the emperor! Extravagant and corrupt livings starts to make Rome crumble, which leads to loud rejoicing in Heaven, as all cry out: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are just and true!” Rev. 19: 1,2,) Then “heaven opened, and there was the white horse! And he who sat upon the horse was called ‘Faithful and True.’” What a drama Jesus shared with John.
Chapter 20, and its interpretation has also been the source of countless pages of speculation about when Christ will return: before a thousand years, after a thousand years, or some other time? And in the meantime, will Satan be loosed or not? So many people slip into literal readings of Revelation 20: verses 7 & 8. It is imagery for the end of the first century, not a prediction for a thousand years from then, or 2000 years from then! You might remember many more books on the subject of the so called “rapture” and “tribulation as we got to Y2K. Cast those books aside. Even the exceedingly popular “Left Behind” series capitalized on the fear of the readers, strategically published the series from 1995-2007.
Finally, after enduring threatening storms, and beasts, and plagues, and horrifying images, we come into a clearing, and we find Jesus, ready to let us know that this was where he was leading us! There is a place, where Jerusalem looks majestic; there is a place where the temple is gloriously rebuilt with pearly gates (not literal, remember!) jewel adorned walls, and streets paved with gold! There is a place, and Jesus tells us what it is called. Listen:
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.
He will dwell[b] with them;
they will be his peoples,[c]
and God himself will be with them;[d]
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
This is comfort for the faithful. Drink it in.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 19, 2019