A new heaven and a new earth: Revelation 21:1-8

200321147-001Previously: Anyone not found in the book of life – Revelation 20:15

The scripture

Rev. 21:1 – 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. 2 I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 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. 4 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.

     5 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.” 6 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. 7 The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. 8 But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars – their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (HCSB)

A brief summary

Verses 1-8 appear to offer us a brief summary of what is described in more detail in the remainder of chapters 21-22. John sees a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. The Greek word John uses for “new” is kainos, which means “different from the usual, impressive, better than the old, superior in value or attraction,” according to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. In other words, God does not simply annihilate the old order of things and start again from scratch; He purges the sinful and fallen cosmos and restores it to its pristine beauty.

Steve Gregg explains in Revelation: Four Views, “One way of understanding the structure of these final chapters is to see this whole segment (vv. 1-8) as an outline or summary of the remaining portion of the book. A remarkable correspondence exists between the progression of thought in these first verses and in the remaining chapters” (p. 492).

For example:

  • In verse 2 we see the New Jerusalem, explained more fully in Rev. 21:9-21.
  • In verse 3 we see that God dwells among men, described in more detail in Rev. 21:22-27.
  • In verse 5 we see the renewal of the world, for which we are provided more information in Rev. 22:1-5.
  • In verse 5 we also see, “These words are faithful and true,” which is expanded upon in Rev. 22:6-10.
  • In verse 6 we see Jesus declare His work completed, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega,” more fully revealed in Rev. 22:11-15.
  • In verses 6-7 we see a final blessing, the water of life to all who thirst, expanded upon in Rev. 22:16-17.
  • And in verse 8 we see the final curse upon the rebellious, repeated in Rev. 22:18-19.

A new heaven and a new earth

The concept of a new heaven and a new earth is addressed in some detail in the Book of Isaiah. While warning the people of Judah that judgment is coming, God comforts the believing remnant that better days are ahead. In Isa. 51:6, for example, He compares the eternal value of His salvation and righteousness to the temporary and fleeting nature of the present heavens and earth: “Look up to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die like gnats. But My salvation will last forever, and My righteousness will never be shattered.”

Isaiah 65-66 presents a more comprehensive view of the Day of the Lord. The final verses of chapter 65, specifically verses 17-25, deliver great promises while posing great interpretative challenges. God’s people are promised new heavens and a new earth, a pledge repeated in 2 Peter 3:13 and Rev. 21:1. In addition, they are promised a New Jerusalem, where the redeemed live securely, enjoy the fruit of their labors, and live a long time. In contrast to military defeat and exile, the Israelites will be “a people blessed by the Lord along with their descendants” (v. 23), and their prayers will be answered even before they are expressed. While they enjoy abundant food, good health, safety and happiness, Satan’s food is dust (v. 25).

These are wonderful promises to a nation facing defeat and exile, as well as to those of us who look forward to the justice and peace that Christ’s return will bring. Yet they do not describe a world completely purged of sin and its consequences. Isa. 65:20, for example, tells us that an old man will “live out his days,” implying that eventually he will die. A 100-year-old person is to be considered a youth, and the one who doesn’t live that long is “cursed.” Meanwhile, the serpent is still around, and while evil and destruction are banned from God’s “holy mountain,” one might conclude they are present elsewhere on earth (v. 25).

What are we to make of this confusing picture? Are we not urged to look forward to a day when God wipes every tear from our eyes; when death exists no longer; when all grief, crying and pain are banished as the “previous things” (Rev. 21:4)? Why does Isaiah describe a future day when the redeemed enjoy vastly improved but still imperfect lives? How do we reconcile Isaiah’s words – which John no doubt has in mind – with the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 21-22?

A literal or a figurative view?

Commentators generally respond in one of two ways. Some take the passage literally, understanding Isaiah to describe conditions in the millennium, a 1,000-year reign of Messiah on earth that precedes final judgment and the creation of new heavens and a new earth. This view is consistent with a literal reading of Revelation 20, which describes Satan as bound for 1,000 years while the followers of Jesus reign with Him on earth. At the end of the millennium, Satan is loosed for a short time to deceive the nations, then is defeated and cast into hell. Joining him in the lake of fire are unbelievers, following their resurrection and judgment before the great white throne. With Satan, demons, and unbelievers consigned for eternity to hell, God purges the created order of sin and its consequences, resulting in new heavens and a new earth.

Other commentators, however, read Isaiah 65 figuratively, understanding references to the sinner (v. 20) and the serpent (v. 25) as promises of judgment and victory. Those who hold this view also tend to see Revelation 20 in symbolic terms, describing Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan, sin, and death. D.A. Carson writes, “The wicked will no longer flourish, nor the strong prey on the weak, nor the tempter escape his sentence, in the perfect world to come. But all this is expressed freely, locally and pictorially, to kindle hope rather than feed curiosity…. [T]his is brought to pass not by a bare creative fiat, but through the Messianic king” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 65:17).

Lawrence O. Richards shares a comforting thought: “However students of prophecy sort these elements out, it is clear from Isaiah’s warm and comforting description of God that a real transformation of man’s state and nature lies ahead. Sin’s curse is lifted, lifespan is extended, and peace is brought even to the animal kingdom. All that is wrong on earth will be set right. When you read prophecies of doom – an atomic holocaust, a greenhouse effect that will melt the ice caps and cause the oceans to overflow our cities, a new Ice Age that will destroy life on earth – do not fear. The real destiny of earth is described by Isaiah here” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 445).

Labor pains

Just as the apostle Paul writes that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now (Rom. 8:23), we may eagerly anticipate the return of Christ who makes all things new, freeing people of the weight of sin and liberating the natural world from its sin-imposed entropy. Meanwhile, some commentators apply Rev. 21:1 spiritually, drawing from another teaching of Paul, who writes that believers are new creations from whom the old things have passed away and for whom all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17). Other commentators see Rev. 21:1 as a reference to the New Covenant as it replaces the Old Covenant. But it seems clear that John has more than this in mind.

As mentioned earlier, by the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” we are not to suppose that God recreates ex nihilo a completely different dwelling place for us; rather, He renovates the sinful and fallen created order and rehabilitates its creatures so that no stain of sin remains. Matthew Henry explains: “By the new earth we may understand a new state for the bodies of men, as well as a heaven for their souls. This world is not now newly created, but newly opened, and filled with all those who were the heirs of it. The new heaven and the new earth will not then be distinct; the very earth of the saints, their glorified bodies, will now be spiritual and heavenly, and suited to those pure and bright mansions. To make way for the commencement of this new world, the old world, with all its troubles and commotions, passed away” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 21:1).

Warren Wiersbe adds: “God has promised His people a new heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). The old creation must make way for the new creation if God is to be glorified. Jesus called this event ‘the regeneration’ of the earth (Matt. 19:28), and Peter explained it as a cleansing and renewing by fire (2 Peter 3:10–13)” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 21:1-5).

W.A. Criswell, borrowing from Joseph A. Seiss, summarizes the earth’s “redemption” and “rejuvenation:” “No longer will it be torn by hooks and irons in order that it yield its increase and its fruit. No longer will it be infested with thistles and thorns and briars. No long will it be cut into graves and plotted into cemeteries. No longer will its soil be moistened by showers of human tears. No longer will it be stained with the crimson of human blood. No longer will its highways bear the processions of those who are brokenhearted and bereaved. There is to be a new, redeemed world. It is to be a paradise regained, an Eden restored, the whole beautiful creation of God remade and rebuilt” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, Vol. 5, p. 105).

Seiss adds these thoughts about the new heaven: “We cannot describe the meteorology of that new heaven; but it will be a heaven which no more robes itself in angry tempests and menacing blackness; nor ever flashes with the thunderbolts of wrath; nor casts forth plagues of hail; nor rains down fiery judgment; nor gives lurking-place to the Devil and his angels; nor is disfigured with dread portents; nor is subject to commotions breeding terror and disaster to the dwellers under them. We often look at the blue sky that arches over us, at the rosy morning’s welcome to the king of day, at the high noon’s flood of brightness, at the mellow glories of the setting sun, at the solemn midnight lit all over with its twinkling star-gems, and we are thrilled with the perfection and beauty of Jehovah’s works. What, then, shall it be when the great Architect, set to do honour to the love and faithfulness of his only begotten Son, shall put forth his hand upon it the second time, to renew it in a fresh and eternal splendor!” (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 487).

Regeneration of the earth

Further supporting the idea that the earth we now inhabit endures and is not annihilated is the use of the Greek language to describe it. There are three Greek words translated “world.” One is ge, which means earth, ground, or this planet. It is the first syllable of our word “geography.” A second Greek word translated “world” is kosmos. It means adornment, embellishment. The word “cosmetics” comes from this word. Eventually in Greek, the word came to describe the well-ordered, cultured civilization of man. The third word translated “world” is aion, or “aeon” in English. It refers to an indefinite period of time. When Jesus says, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20 KJV), the word for “world” is aion, or age. Never is the word ge used to describe the end of the world. In other words, the physical realm we now inhabit does not end and is not annihilated; rather, it is purged of sin and restored to its pristine beauty and innocence.

Another word to consider is parerchomai, translated “passed away” in verse 1. When John writes that the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, he does not mean brought to extinction; rather, he means a change from one state to another. This word is used a number of times in scripture. In Mark 13:31, for example, Jesus says that heaven and earth shall parerchomai. The primary meaning of this word is to change from one place or kind or situation to another. Jesus contrasts the future, changing state of the created order with His words, which do not pass away; that is, the words of the eternal Word of God are unchanging, steady, reliable. So, when John says the first heaven and earth “passed away,” he means they underwent a vast renovation. They are still here, but God has renovated them in dramatic and divine fashion.

“Aeons end, times change, the fashion of the world passeth away, but there is no instance in all the Book of God which assigns an absolute termination to the existence of the earth as one of the planets, or any other of the great sisterhood of material orbs” (Seiss, p. 484).

Finally, let’s look at one more Greek phrase, palig genesia. It means the remaking, the rebirth, or the regeneration. In Matt. 19:28 Jesus speaks of the “regeneration [Messianic Age], when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne.” He speaks, not of our individual regeneration, in which the Holy Spirit makes us spiritually alive, but of the regeneration of the heaven and earth. Paul describes the same event, and creation’s anticipation of it, in Rom. 8:19, 22-23: “For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed…. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits – we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Next: The sea no longer existed – Revelation 21:1