April 24, 2016 “City Life” – Revelation 21
April 24, 2016 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Beth and I will spend a couple nights at the coast next month. Many of you do that too. Here in the Willamette Valley we are nicely positioned to enjoy all the best of God’s creation, whether it’s a walk on the beach or a hike in the mountains. We tend to imagine paradise in those terms, some place natural and peaceful, with sweeping views and none of the traffic sounds and billboards of city life.
The Scottish Bible commentator Alexander MacLaren wrote that our “course begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.” The Bible moves from the Garden of Eden in the second chapter of Genesis to the Holy City in the second to last chapter of Revelation. There is something like a garden pictured within the final city, a stream and fruit trees, at the beginning of chapter 22, but it’s a city garden, closed in with walls and shared by great multitudes of people.
Some of my friends love the city. A few have never even learned to drive. They pride themselves on taking buses, subways and trains everywhere they need to go. They are energized by crowds of people around them, the blend of languages and cultures, and all the opportunities for art, entertainment and good eating.
A number of years ago we heard an immigrant to the United States who came here from Tehran in Iraq with her Persian-American husband tell about her first week in Eugene. They arrived on Memorial Day. As they drove to his home she asked, “Where is everyone?” “It’s a holiday,” he replied, “they’re all at home.” But the next day she got up and went with him to the bank to do some business and asked again, “Where is everyone?” She was used to tightly crowded sidewalks and markets and public squares. Downtown Eugene even on a weekday looked empty to her.
I like it in Eugene. I enjoy the relatively uncrowded streets and sidewalks, the 20-minute drive to almost anywhere in town, and the feeling of wide open spaces just a little way out of the city limits. So, like some of you may be, I’m a little baffled and put-off by the way the Bible wraps up in a city.
The first four verses of Revelation 21 are sweet. Verse 2 tells us the centerpiece of a new heaven and new earth will be a city coming down from heaven to earth. Verse 3 is the fulfillment of the divine project that began in Jesus. God will dwell with human beings. He will be where we are. Verse 4 repeats that poignant promise we heard at the end of chapter 7 last week, “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It goes on in blessed assurance that not just tears, but death and sorrow and crying and pain will all be wiped away.
Verses 5 tells us how that sweet, sweet time is going to arrive, how it’s possible for death and tears to vanish from our faces and from the face of this earth. God will do it. The “one who was seated on the throne” tells us He is “making all things new.” Notice what the Lord said there. It was Steven Bouma-Prediger who first called my attention to this. God is making all things new. He’s not making all new things. There’s a difference.
A new city will come down from heaven to earth because God is not giving up on the earth. He is not giving up on cities. He is not giving up on you and me. The plan for eternity is not to wipe the slate clean and start over with a fresh planet and people. No, God’s project is just what He began in Jesus, to make us and our planet over by raising us from the dead into a new kind of life. He won’t throw us or our world away. He’s going to save us and save our world and even save city life.
Verse 6 takes us back to what we heard at the beginning of Revelation three weeks ago. “It’s done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” That’s Jesus talking. If we weren’t sure, He goes on to repeat what He said to the woman at the well, “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” Our new life will be refreshed in us by the living water which comes from Jesus Christ.
“I will be their God and they will be my children,” we’re told in verse 7. That’s what we were meant to be from the beginning. That’s how we started out in the garden and that’s how we will end up in the City, children of God. “See what love the Father has for us,” it says in I John 3:1, “that we should be called children of God.”
Verse 8 is not so sweet. It sounds pretty harsh, a list of all the kinds of people who are not going to be there in that city. Cowards, unbelievers, murderers, sexually immoral, practitioners of the occult, idol worshippers and liars are all going to be excluded and placed in a much less pleasant place, the lake of fire.
It’s natural to wonder about that list and who is on it. You may have your own favorite nominees, like Hitler, Idi Amin or Osama bin Laden, or perhaps more personally someone who abused you or a loved one, a con artist who cheated you, or a drunk driver who killed a family. “Let them all burn in hell,” we may think, even if we don’t say it out loud.
That list has to be there, you know. God cannot wipe every tear and get rid of death and pain if the kind of people who cause such sorrow are still around. God can’t save cities if the likes of the Hillside Strangler are in Los Angeles, or John Wayne Gacy is in Chicago, or the Son of Sam is in New York. Not as dramatically, but still truly, a city cannot be a safe place free from pain and tears if there is lying and cheating and stealing and immorality. A perfect place to live needs perfect people to live in it.
Our problem is that none of us really belong in a perfectly holy city. We’re not serial killers, but we are still sinners. It’s like the old saying, “Don’t look for the perfect church, because if you found it, they wouldn’t let you join it.” We might like the idea of a perfect city, but none of us is fit to live there.
That’s why we need to go to the end of the chapter and read in verse 27 that the only people in that city to come are “those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” It’s by the grace of Jesus the Lamb who was slain for our sins that we gain entrance to the city of God. We don’t merit our citizenship in God’s city. It’s a gift.
My daughter is on her way to becoming a citizen of Canada. She got permanent residency a year or two ago, like our “green card.” She had to jump through all sorts of hoops, fill out forms, prove she has work, etc., etc., just like anyone who wants to become a citizen here. It got easier when she married a Canadian. She had a sponsor, someone to vouch for her, a relationship which opened the door to Canada for her. In a much greater way, that’s how you and I get into the city of God. Jesus Christ is our sponsor. It’s our relationship with Him which gives us eternal residency in His city, in His country.
Our daughter is the wife of a Canadian, so she is able to become a Canadian citizen. In verse 9 when an angel comes to give John a better view of the Holy City, he says, “Come I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” In His death and resurrection and love for us, Jesus married a whole City, made the entire Church of believers His bride, His wife. That’s the relationship at the foundation of our present and our future.
Let’s be honest and clear. We all belong on that list in verse 8 in some way. Without Jesus our city is the one which gets thrown down and destroyed in Revelation 18, the garish, powerful, evil city of Babylon. Without Christ, that’s where every sinner lives and belongs, doomed to destruction with that city. To come to the Holy City we need a relationship with the Holy One, with Jesus the Lamb who gave His life so that you and I may have a new life in His place. My prayer is that anyone here today who doesn’t yet have that relationship with Jesus will ask for and receive it right away. Please think about it.
John gets a closer look at the City in verse 10. He needs to be up high, on a mountain, because it is incredibly huge. He repeats what he said in verse 2. He saw it “coming down out of heaven.” We don’t find our way to God somehow. He comes to us. That’s the Bible. That’s the Gospel. We wandered away like sheep and God sent His own Lamb to find us and be with us. The City is a gift, not something we build for ourselves.
In verse 10 and back in verse 2 we also hear this city called Jerusalem. How many of you have been to Jerusalem? I’m sure it’s glorious to be where God centered the lives of His people for centuries, where Jesus walked and taught and gave His life and rose again. But does it look like what’s described here? I don’t imagine so. My guess is that much of it is cramped and crowded and dirty. It’s a divided city in three parts, the historic walled city full of holy sites, a modern urban Jewish area to the west, and the Arab section to the east. It’s patrolled by armed soldiers. I imagine you can probably feel tension and fear in the air.
As Eugene Peterson points out, our Jerusalem is the city captured from pagan Jebusites by David in a sneak attack. It’s the place where God was worshipped but then dishonored by kings and people who turned to idols. It’s the community that mocked Jeremiah and didn’t listen to Isaiah. It’s a city which was totally destroyed not once but twice by empires much bigger and never really rebuilt the second time. It’s city which Jesus looked down at and wept over because they refused to accept Him. It was the place where a crowd shouted “Crucify!” and got what they wanted.
Peterson observes that this ugly and rebellious little city of Jerusalem is an unlikely candidate to be the model for the eternal, heavenly City which is our destiny. But it is. God takes people who deserve to be in the lake of fire and saves them and makes them new people by the blood of the Lamb. In the same way He takes the places we’ve built, all the shabby, ill-considered, poorly planned, crowded and hopelessly polluted communities we’ve created, and He makes a new creation out of them.
God saves the city of Jerusalem, He saves the city of human life, what Augustine called the city of the world, by coming into it and making it new. He saved humanity by coming into it, by becoming human. He saves where we live by being there too. That’s what verse 11 means, “It has the glory of God.” Like the ancient, but much smaller Tabernacle in the wilderness and then the Temple in the earthly Jerusalem, God is in this city. In those ancient worship places the sign of His presence was smoke, a mystery that can’t be penetrated, but in that City to come John says it will be radiant like a jewel, “clear as crystal.” There will be no mystery, no doubt God is with us.
Last week I talked about not taking the symbolism of Revelation too literally. That applies to the images we read starting in verse 11 and on through verse 21. Incredible dimensions, precious stones, golden streets are part of a picture meant to describe something that cannot be described. But It doesn’t mean we cannot learn from it.
Verses 12 to 14 want us to see how that future city is firmly rooted and based in the past. We do our spring cleaning and like to throw away old things, like Shirlie threw away the past-date food from our church refrigerator this week. But God is able to save old things, to remake them. But they are still what they were.
There are twelve angels at the gates in verse 12, reminding us of the angel guarding the way back into the garden of Eden, the way to the Tree of Life. But now those angels to guard gates that never close, as it says in verse 25. The way to the Tree of Life will be open forever. On the gates themselves, we read the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Those twelve quarreling brothers, sons of Jacob, and the tribes born from them were the beginning of a totally unworthy people whom God adopted, who became His children.
On the foundations of the walls, in verse 14, we find twelve more names, the twelve apostles. Like Jacob’s sons they too were a pretty sorry lot, poor fishermen, a dishonest tax collector, maybe a terrorist or two. Yet God in Christ chose them to found the whole edifice, to start it all rolling, to take the first steps to make a tiny band of traveling preachers into the largest community the earth will ever see.
Those twelve brothers and twelve disciples started something much larger than themselves. That’s why the dimensions measured in the next few verses beggar the mind. The city is a perfect cube. As Peterson notes, the ancient Holy of Holies in the Temple was a cube. God’s presence was found in about 2,700 cubic feet. The New Jerusalem is measured at 1,400 or 1,500 miles on a side, something like 3 billion cubic miles.
When I first realized the size and shape being described here it bothered me a lot. I didn’t like the images it conjured up. In a recent apartment search, our daughter Joanna and her husband looked at high rises in Chicago. It’s one thing to live on the 37th floor, but it seems crazy to imagine living on the 370,000th floor. So years ago when I was asked to teach Revelation at the Bible college I went looking for a picture.
I found this artist’s conception of a gleaming golden cube studded with jewels, flying through space. But as a bit of a nerd, I couldn’t help but connect it with another image… the gleaming black gigantic cube of the Borg in Star Trek. I didn’t want to be in either one, the cosmic apartment high rise or the Borg ship. As I said at the beginning, I wanted something more like the Oregon coast or the Oregon Cascades.
But what we’re meant to take away is not literal architecture. It’s an impression of perfect shape and immense size. What God is going to make out of us and out of the world we’ve managed to clutter with ugly cities full of poverty and pain, is big and beautiful. God is coming into the center of where we live and reshaping it to shine with His glory.
Likewise those jeweled foundations of the wall and the famous gates of pearl—imagine the oysters needed to produce those!—they’re not a literal description. They’re a way of talking about how precious all this is to God. What He wants to make out of us, out of you and me and everyone who will trust Him, is more valuable than all the diamonds of South Africa, than all the gold of the north Alaskan coast.
God is getting ready to come and live with us. That’s what the whole story is about. That’s what your life and my life are about. In ancient Jerusalem that’s what the Temple meant. God lived there in the Holy of Holies in the midst of His people. But as the prophets like Jeremiah taught clearly, that was never quite right. God doesn’t fit into any size box, not even a 3 billion cubic-mile box. But He does want to be with us.
So in verse 22 John sees no Temple in the New Jerusalem. It’s unnecessary. God and His Son, the Lamb who is Jesus, are right there. And that, says verse 33, means that no lights will be necessary, not even the natural light of sun or moon. “The glory of God is its light,” and as the old hymn goes, “the Lamb is the light in the city of gold.”
New York has had some famous blackouts, times when power and lights went out over most of it. In 1965 it wasn’t too bad. The city went dark, but there was a bright full moon, people came out into the streets to meet and talk, and the lights were back on in the morning. It’s not true, but the story goes that lots of babies were born nine months later. People made jokes and a movie about it all.
The New York blackout of 1977 was different. That time most people huddled inside in fear and looters took to the streets. 31 neighborhoods were looted and vandalized. Thirty-five blocks of Broadway were destroyed. Over a thousand fires were lit, 1,600 stores looted, about 4,000 looters arrested and jammed into overcrowded cells. That period of darkness wasn’t something to joke about. It was a time of fear.
These closing images in Revelation are our hope and promise that in the long run the people of God have nothing to fear. As Psalm 139:12 says, the darkness is not dark to God. He Himself is a pure and holy light coming to fill us and our lives to the point where there cannot be darkness anymore. Verse 27 says “nothing unclean will enter” that city. No fear, no robbery, no poverty, no violence, none of it will be there.
The question is, do we want to be there? It’s not just do you want to go to heaven? No, it’s do we want to live forever in this world as God is going to remake it in beauty and light rather than in dreary darkness? And if we do want to be in His city on earth, how does that show up in the way we talk and behave right now? How are we, like God, seeing the people around us and the places we live in as precious jewels which God wants to save?
God’s City is coming to this world, but as St. Augustine wrote long ago, He wants us to start living in it right now. Our aim is not to get out of this world to be where God is. It’s for God to be in this world where we are. If that’s our hope, then let’s start living like it now. The Holy Spirit of Jesus is God with us now. He came. He is. And He will be here.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 Reversed Trumpets: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), pp. 174-175.