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. (HCSB)
The sea no longer existed
It’s curious that John notes there is no longer any sea (Rev. 21:1). Why is this?
John may be saying that just as the old heaven and earth have passed away, so has the old sea, which covers most of our planet. Many of God’s creatures reside in the sea or rely on it for life. So why wouldn’t Jesus renovate these huge bodies of water and their inhabitants? Some commentators take John’s words to mean the oceans are done away with, not fresh bodies of water.
Still others take this symbolically as representing the nations and peoples of the Gentiles. Only spiritual Israel – that is, true Israel consisting of Old and New Covenant saints – remains, while unbelievers are cast out, allowing the glory of the Lord to fill the earth: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).
A.R. Fausset and D. Brown offer this perspective: “The sea is the type of perpetual unrest. Hence our Lord rebukes it as an unruly hostile troubler of His people. It symbolized the political tumults out of which ‘the beast’ arose, Rev 13:1. As the physical corresponds to the spiritual and moral world, so the absence of sea, after the metamorphosis of the earth by fire, answers to the unruffled state of solid peace which shall then prevail…. The sea was once the element of the world’s destruction, and is still the source of death to thousands, whence after the millennium, at the general judgment, it is specially said, ‘The sea gave up the dead … in it.’ Then it shall cease to destroy, or disturb, being removed altogether on account of its past destructions” (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Rev. 21:1, Logos Research Systems).
Chaos and calamity
Charles R. Swindoll offers a similar view: “To people of the ancient world … the sea was a mysterious, frightening, and dangerous place, characterized by chaos and possessing the power to kill without warning. No fate could have been worse than to be swallowed up by the sea and have one’s remains devoured by fish. Travel by sea was treacherous. Ships had to navigate within sight of land to avoid getting lost or caught in a sudden storm. At the same time, they couldn’t sail too close to land, lest they strike a reef or be driven against rocks or jagged cliffs.
“Trade by sea was both a precarious and lucrative business. If your ship made it back with goods from afar, you were rich. If it didn’t, you lost everything – sometimes, your own life…. In the book of Revelation, the sea also served as a symbol … of disorder, violence, or unrest that marks the old creation (cf. Isa. 57:20; Ps. 107:25-28; Ezek. 28:8). John’s imagery of the sea elsewhere in Revelation designates it as an origin of all kinds of cosmic evil (Rev. 12:12; 13:1). It could also represent the unbelieving nations who persecuted God’s people (12:12; 13:1). Clearly, in ancient times, sea stood for chaos and calamity, disorder and destruction” (Insights on Revelation, p. 272).
David Stern writes this about the sea: “The Bible depicts creation as war. Light conquers darkness (Gen. 1:1-5; John 1:1-5), but the sea is allied with the darkness. Therefore the sea has to be contained, limited – this is done on the second day of creation (Gen. 1:6-10; see also Job 38:8-11, Isa. 27:1, and possibly Isa. 51:9 – 52:12). The sea is active in bringing destruction and death through the flood of Noah, an event mentioned five times in the New Testament (Matt. 24:37-38; Luke 17:26-27; Heb. 11:7; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5).
“But the sea is under God’s control, as seen most clearly in the Exodus, where God’s ‘strong hand and outstretched arm’ turn the Red Sea into a means of salvation for the Israelites, though a means of destruction for the Egyptians. God has promised never again to use water as a means of universal destruction (Gen. 9:11), but equally he has promised that he will use fire for that purpose (2 Peter 3:10-12). The Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:15) is a fiery sea of eternal destruction; it conquers finally and universally what the Red Sea conquered temporally and locally – namely, sin” (Jewish New Testament Commentary, pp. 851-52).
Whether we are to understand the sea literally, figuratively, or spiritually, its absence from the new earth is a comfort to John’s first-century readers, and it should be to us as well.
Next: The Holy City – Revelation 21:2