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The Final Act: A Study of Revelation 21

Behold, God is making all things new.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Revelation 21


Getting Started: Things to Think About

This is the sanctuary of East Heights United Methodist Church in Wichita KS, where Shelly and I got married (that’s not our ceremony, and Lola Jo didn’t do our pictures, not that you would know). It’s a beautiful building, and as a former member and friend of the organist, I got a great deal on it, but that’s not important now. The wedding ceremony was beautiful and simple, and it was an important symbol of our new life together. And I am very happy to say that our wedding was not the best day of our marriage. Life together has proven to be so much more.


I think that a wedding is a great icebreaker because you don’t necessarily have to talk about your own to be a part of the conversation. You can ask about funny moments, powerful moments, the most over-the-top reception, best and worst locations, and so on. But make sure you get everyone to the following point: a wedding is only the beginning of a marriage. All marriages have ups and downs. Some don’t make it. I am so grateful to say that my marriage keeps trending up. BUT ask this question: can you imagine a marriage without sin? Can you imagine your marriage without sin? My deep prayer is that everyone would say, “Wow, that would be amazing. That would be a wonderful experience for a lifetime.”


That’s what the book of Revelation offers to us. It describes the return of Christ as the wedding for a lifetime of eternal “marriage” to Him, which in this case simply means a perfect, sinless relationship. If in our sin-stained marriages on earth we have the potential to deepen our love for one another for our lives, can you imagine a sinless relationship for eternity?


Context: What Have We Missed?

Here’s my immediate summary of what we skipped in chapters 13-20:

At the end of the judgments, Babylon (which is a symbol of all that opposes God) is declared guilty. All of heaven celebrates because this means Jesus can return to the earth to destroy His enemies and invite His faithful to the wedding supper of the Lamb. As He rides out of heaven on a white horse, the beast’s armies stand ready to fight, only to be destroyed and/or cast into the lake of fire. Then, the dragon/Satan is bound and cast into the Abyss for 1000 years (the Millenium). Those who were martyred for their faith reign with Christ until the 1000 years are over and Satan is released to deceive the nations one last time and raise an army against God. Then, after that final battle, Satan is thrown into the lake of fire along with everyone whose name was not found in the Book of Life.


Then, after the final war, the New Jerusalem comes down to the earth, and all the dead in Christ are resurrected to join Him there. In the remainder of Revelation, we learn how marvelous this place is, and we hear the promises that Jesus will return soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Part 1: God’s New Provision (21:1-2)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

I give you an aside on what the “new” heaven means (I think it means “renewed” or “resurrected” rather than “completely starting over” which means that there will be some continuity between now and then—heaven will feel familiar). I also give you an aside on the “sea” (as in, why does the sea have such a bad rep?). Realize that these two verses give you the crux of the final chapters of Revelation. God WILL make all things new. God WILL undo the curse of sin. God WILL be able to create everything good again. And we will get to be a part of it. Unlike how Moses had to see the promised land from afar because he was unworthy to enter it, God showed John this vision precisely because John was going to live there one day.

What exactly does “pass away” mean? The word literally means “go” or “pass by”, but it is also used to mean “perish”, “disappear”, or “cease to exist”. I think of it this way: people “pass away” (English is different, but we might be using the word similarly). When we pass away, we are forever, fundamentally changed. Now, before Jesus returns, our souls move into the presence of God and wait for Jesus to return so we can be reunited with our bodies. And yet—our bodies are not quite the same; they are perishable here, but imperishable there; corruptible here, but incorruptible there. Our bodies are new, yet we will be recognizable. That’s how I understand this. Paul makes it clear that all of creation is groaning under the curse of sin, waiting for Jesus to return and fix it, or make it new (Romans 8). I don’t get the sense that we are going to be wiped out and started over. We will all sleep, and we will all be changed.


The New Jerusalem is the prophesied dwelling place of God on earth (see particularly Isa 2, 65; Zech 12, 14). In the Old Testament, the title was synonymous with security, beauty, fellowship with God, joy, everlasting peace. I am one of those who believe this represents a literal place, heaven on earth. God, because He understands that we are physical beings, knows that He needs to have a physical location for us to associate with, so He gives that to us. God will still be everywhere, but just as He “dwelled” in the Tabernacle and the Temple, God will “dwell” in the throne room of the New Jerusalem.

{Side note: I believe the phrase “coming down out of heaven” is the key to understanding the end times prophesies of the New Testament. That’s going to be the focus of my class on Revelation in October. If you think your group will want to talk about lots of End Times stuff on your last day in Revelation, please get in touch with me so I can give you some things to think about.}


The city has been prepared like a bride. This calls to my mind one of my two most comforting passages in the Bible (the other being 1 Corinthians 15): John 14:1-3: “Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.” Jesus Christ has Himself made ready to spend eternity with us. He has put everything together out of love, and indeed God uses the image of a wedding to make this clear. In Jewish New Testament times, the groom would give the bride something of great value as a pledge of faithfulness (today, we use a ring). (The parents would also work out financial arrangements including a dowry.) On the wedding day, the groom and his party would lead a great procession through the streets to the bride’s parents’ home, where the bride would be waiting dressed as beautifully as clothing would allow. The bride and her party would join the procession to the groom’s parents’ house where the courtyard would be set for a grand festival. The bride and groom would have a special canopy while games, eating, and dancing would take place all around them (sometimes for a week or more). Guests would wear their finest clothes and praise the new couple. That night, the father would escort his daughter to the bridal chamber (and yes this is weird, but he would even collect the sheet on the next morning to prove his daughter’s virginity). In the more chauvinistic pockets of society, that might be the highlight of the marriage for a bride, but God makes it clear that He is not that kind of Husband because we goes out of His way to declare that He will dwell with and be with humanity. That is the perfect picture of happiness we have in the New Jerusalem which God Himself has made perfect in every way for those who trust in Jesus.

 

Aside: What’s Wrong with the Sea?

The Old Testament regularly declares God’s mastery over the sea and the storm, and Jesus demonstrates that same authority. On the new earth, there is no sea. What’s the big deal? To make a long story short, many of Israel’s neighbors worshiped the sea (or at least the monsters from the sea: Tiamat, Rahab, Yam), and the storm (Ba’al). The sea was menacing, dangerous, and uncontrollable to humanity (imagine how many people died in lonely boats in storms at sea). People worship what they fear.


Psalms regularly declares God’s greater power over the sea, as in Psalm 26, 74, 77, 93, 104, 136, 144. God created the sea and everything in it. He used the sea to destroy humanity, and He will destroy the sea with fire. So does this mean the sea is bad?


No. It means God and the biblical writers are using images their audience will understand and appreciate. The sea is a source of life for most of the world, but that life comes through the great churning and storms that make the sea so dangerous to people. There will be no danger in heaven, so that must mean the sea in the sense that we know it will no longer exist. And yet God created the sea and the sea creatures and called them good—so what about them. Will there be no sea in heaven? I don’t think that’s what the verse means. I think it is talking about the dangerous element of the sea (just like the carnivorous part of a lion). Somehow, the sea will be totally safe, the way God originally created it.

 

Part 2: God’s Presence Celebrated (21:3-4)

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.

Will we know one another in heaven? Yes! We will be God’s people! That only makes sense if we will somehow be a bit of the same person were who chose God’s kingdom over our own. We will have perfect relationships with God and one another, the kind that the Bible calls us to have (and that the Lord’s Supper envisions—which is why we examine ourselves before we take it!)


{Important Aside: This Sunday, we will be sharing the Lord’s Supper in our church service. Hear Paul’s words on preparing: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” When Paul says “body” there, he means the church: the body of Christ being nourished by the body of Jesus, if that makes sense. If our relationships with one another are off, we must fix that before we should partake of this symbol of unity with God and one another. **I would ask that all of our members prepare ourselves for the Lord’s Supper by spending time in repentance and even seeking forgiveness!!**}


There is not a more beautiful way our future can be described. We will be with the God of all comfort. He will take away everything that has caused us pain and suffering and give us rest. Note that when the angel says “They will be His people” it literally reads “His peoples”, which some scholars believe reminds us that heaven will be a diverse place, that God has followers all over the world.


The question must be asked, why will there be tears in our eyes in heaven? They can’t be tears of joy because God would not wipe those away. I believe they will be tears of memory. When we get to heaven, and when we realize who is there (and I’m sure there will be some wonderful surprises!), and more importantly when we realize who is not there (and I can’t think of any more sorrowful event than the realization that a friend or loved one never truly gave his life to Jesus), our souls will be devastated as we think of all the pointless and shallow things we wasted our lives over, only to find out that people are not with God because of our shallow selfishness. God will wipe away those tears from our eyes. It is too late for the lost soul, but they made their own choice, even if we made it harder for them.

These words are how I cope with reality. My life has been good. We’ve had our issues with health, with loss, and with stress, but nothing like I know many people in this church have experienced. I have good Christian friends who have endured awful, awful things, including debilitating physical and mental handicaps. The loss of children. Horrific accidents. The trauma of war. Why did others have to suffer that and I did not? I don’t know. But I earnestly believe this: God will personally comfort them. And I earnestly pray this: may God give them a front-row seat while I sit in the back. They deserve it. And I believe He will honor it.

 

Aside: “New” or “Restored”?

When John said he saw a “new heavens and a new earth” what does that mean? Does that mean the old heavens and earth were wiped out and started over (“new” as in “creation from nothing”)? Or does it mean that existing creation is “renewed” as in salvation?

I put Isaiah 65 and 66 on the back page as another place God talks about this new heavens and earth. When you read these verses very literally, it seems to give the impression that God will be starting over completely, but I don’t think we have to read them that way. In the first place, those who are alive when Jesus returns aren’t said to be burned up and then reanimated, they are said to be caught up to Him in the air (to join the new Jerusalem as it descends). In the second place, the purpose of the verses is to declare God’s absolute restoring powers. God never says He is creating a “second” heavens and earth, He is creating a “new” one in which His enemies are defeated. That does not have to mean the destruction of the old. Finally, I think the experience of salvation can give us the best illustration of this. When we are saved, God gives us a new heart and a new spirit. The old has passed away; we are something new in Jesus Christ. And yet, there is continuity with who we were. Our bodies continue. Our environment continues. Our life continues. Yet we are new and totally acceptable to be in God’s presence through Jesus Christ. I think we can look at the new heavens and earth the same way. Re-newed, “fixed”, restored to its perfect plan. New, yet familiar, New, yet home.

 

Part 3: The Promise Fulfilled (21:5-7)

Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life. The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son.”

From the beginning of the Bible, God has promised that He would undo the curse of sin that Adam brought into the world through the temptation of the devil. Throughout the Old Testament, He sustained His people with promises that there is more to existence than their few meager years. For those good Jews who suffered the punishment of the rebellious, God said He would repay them. And sure enough, He will. What promise could bring you greater joy than to hear that God is making you new? That helps me get through the day. The remainder of these words mean what you think they mean, and your leader guide gives you lots of good cross references. I’m going to turn my remaining space to teaching ideas.


Teaching the Lesson. The point of these verses is to encourage John to stay faithful and hopeful, which is why John passed them on to us, so that needs to be our purpose. Use a vacation or special event to illustrate. Have you ever been encouraged to stick out a tough situation because you had something to look forward to? (Or vice versa, been discouraged because you didn’t have anything to look forward to?) In other words, we will put up with a lot if we know what’s on the other side of it. Heaven is something we can look forward to. And we should want as many people there as possible!


That brings up another hot-button issue: not everybody will be in heaven (if you keep reading in 21:8, this is clear). Why is universalism, or the belief that everybody will go to heaven, so popular? Maybe it’s because we don’t want the responsibility of sharing our faith? You’ll want to talk about this, and you need to decide based on your class exactly how.

Last week, we prayed for one another, that we would be protected until the devil’s relentless attacks. This week, I want us to pray beyond that, that God would give us boldness to live out His plan while we are still here on this earth. Knowing what God has prepared for you for eternity, what will you do for Him now?

 

Jesus Is God

Just in verses 5-7, we have a number of things that remind us that Jesus is God. The One sitting on the throne speaks in these verses, but remember -


In Rev 1:17, Jesus says, “I am the First and the Last.” In Rev 22:13, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” In John 4:13, Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again—ever! In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up within him for eternal life.” In John 7:37, Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.”

It is no coincidence that John is the one who wrote down these words and not the others. Having been allowed to live longer and meditate longer on everything Jesus said and did, he saw the parallels between Jesus and God the Father that the other Gospel writers did not need to prioritize. It became a very, very important cause in John’s writing ministry to prove that Jesus is God, and realizing that Jesus said the same things that God the Father did is a big part of that case. But Jesus never usurps the Father/Son role; He is very comfortable with His place in the Trinity and chooses instead to speak of us as brothers and sisters. That is intentional and not a hint that Jesus is less than God, but only that Jesus is not the Father.

 

Closing Thoughts: New Heaven and Earth in the Old Testament

Isaiah 65:17-25 “For I will create a new heaven and a new earth; the past events will not be remembered or come to mind. Then be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I will create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people. The sound of weeping and crying will no longer be heard in her. In her, a nursing infant will no longer live only a few days, or an old man not live out his days. Indeed, the youth will die at a hundred years, and the one who misses a hundred years will be cursed. People will build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They will not build and others live in them; they will not plant and others eat. For My people’s lives will be like the lifetime of a tree. My chosen ones will fully enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor without success or bear children destined for disaster, for they will be a people blessed by the Lord along with their descendants. Even before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but the serpent’s food will be dust! They will not do what is evil or destroy on My entire holy mountain,” says the Lord.


Isaiah 66:22-24 “For just as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, will endure before Me”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“so your offspring and your name will endure. All mankind will come to worship Me from one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another,” says the Lord. “As they leave, they will see the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me; for their worm will never die, their fire will never go out, and they will be a horror to all mankind.”

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