Chapters 21-22 The end of the beginning - Revelation 21

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 16th March 2008.

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The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best modern films made and is frequently rated among many people’s top ten favourite films of all time. Set in 1940's America it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a gentle, quietly spoken banker who is falsely convicted of his wife's murder and sent to prison. The prison is governed by the harsh and uncompromising Warden Norton, and life inside is even harsher. Andy faces frequent beatings and the whole regime is designed to suck every last ounce of hope out of the prisoners. Red, a life prisoner who befriends Andy, puts it like this: "The first night's the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born…. And when they put you in that cell... and those bars slam home...that's when you know it's for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it." But the one thing Andy will not do is give up hoping. While all around him are succumbing to the feelings of despair, Andy never gives up. Unlike the other prisoners Andy retains a sense of hope, hope that life can be more than the suffering of prison life, hope that he can one day be released and live again. And it’s that hope that keeps him going right to the end, that keeps him from suicide and resignation to a life inside. And the tag line for the film, the theme that runs right the way through is this: "Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free."

            It’s been well said that without hope human beings perish. And time and again when people find themselves in great difficulty and possible death, it’s hope that has kept them going. And that’s why it’s all the more strange that those of us who are Christians don’t consider our future hope more often. Because we Christians have the best hope of all. You see for many people in this world, hope revolves around uncertainty. People hope for a better future, a better job, better finances, a better holiday, better health, a better house- but there’s no certainty to such hope. At best it’s a vague wish for something better. But for the Christian, hope is something much more concrete. Christian hope is certain because it’s based on the promise of God. And that hope is a glorious future with God in his perfect place.

            Now from the very start of Revelation, we have seen that it is a letter driven by hope. The first chapter of Revelation explained those three key themes of God’s sovereignty, Jesus’ victory and the church’s security. We’ve seen again and again that the victory is not so much Armageddon in the future but Calvary in the past. We know Christ is Lord and reigns. But in the meantime, Revelation has revealed to us the harsh reality of living between the times, between Jesus’ first and second comings. God’s people whilst spiritually secure have faced persecution and tough times, both because we live in a fallen world under God’s judgement as we have seen in the seals and trumpets and bowls; but also because we face an enemy Satan and his three allies, the beast, the false prophet and the harlot Babylon. But now, the lamb has conquered. Chapter 20 showed us the end of all evil and all enemies of God. Jesus has brought to reality the victory that was achieved on the cross. And now we see the hope realised. A fantastic picture of what awaits us as God’s people now all evil is gone and all enemies defeated.

            But I want to suggest to you that this glorious vision of the future is not the climax of the book. It’s not where we are meant to end. Because when John has finished describing heaven for us, he does not end his book. There are another 21 verses to go. You see John could have finished at 22 v 7, and that would have been a great ending. Maybe that’s where you and I would have left off. “And they all lived happily ever after, the end!” But John spends the last 21 verses of his book giving us some serious warnings. And the reason is this. That whilst chapters 21 and 22 vv 1-7 are fantastic verses, and in many ways the climax of the whole Bible, yet the reality is we are not there yet. We are still in this world; the old order, as John calls it has not yet passed away. Sin is still a reality, the enemies of God are still around. So the reason John gives us chapter 21 is to show us why it is worth pressing on. Why it is worth giving your life for the gospel, why it is worth being persecuted and resisting sin for the whole of your life. Because the best is yet to come. And if you and I fail to grasp that, and to see that we’re meant to live now in the light of that future hope, then we will fall and stumble and not make it to the end. So as we look at this glorious chapter with all its hope, we will be applying it to the now, because the future hope has a present application. And we’ll see four themes from these chapters:

1) A Solid Hope

2) An Intimate Hope

3) A Secure Hope

4) A Practical Hope

 

1) A Solid Hope

So the first thing we see about this hope is that it’s a solid hope. And by that we mean that heaven, our future hope, is a solid earthly reality. And the first part of this solid hope is a new creation. See what John says in verse 1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” John is looking forward to a time when God promises to make everything new. He sees a new heaven and a new earth. That is, he sees a new universe, a new place for God’s people to live in. But notice something remarkable in verse 2. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” John describes a holy city, the new Jerusalem. It’s symbolic language for talking about God’s people which we’ll see a little later. But notice that this city comes down from heaven to earth. In other words heaven is a place on earth. God is going to make everything new and heaven will be a real physical tangible place on earth. And when you look closely at the future hope passages in the NT, then this is the truth that is emphasised again and again. So Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 talks about the need for new physical resurrections bodies in the new world we will inhabit. That’s why Jesus rose physically from the dead to show that the resurrection hope for believers is a physical hope. And such teaching totally knocks on the head the view of heaven as a super spiritual place in the sky where we are the equivalent of ghosts wafting around in white negligees playing harps. Such teaching has nothing to do with the NT hope. No the future hope is a solid hope- a real place that God will make for his people. And it’s important to understand too that there is continuity between this world and the new world. Different passages explain what will happen in different ways. But it’s clear that the new world will be similar to this world, but infinitely better because there will be no sin. Just think for a moment of the many good things in this world that God has made. Beautiful sunsets, amazing mountains, wonderful creatures living in the sea and on the earth. And then think how much better it will be when this world is remade as a perfect world. It will be absolutely fantastic.

            The author CS Lewis describes the future hope in picture language in the Narnia books. And he shows us that the future hope is a solid reality that God will bring about. In the book The Last Battle, Mr Tumnus the fawn is showing Lucy around the new Narnia she has come to, which in Lewis’ symbolism represents heaven. We read: “Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world with its own rivers and woods and seas and mountains. But they were not strange to her. She knew them all. ‘I see, she said. This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below.’” You see this world is shadowlands. Its tainted by sin, but it is a good place. But one day God will renew everything. And the new creation will be more real, more beautiful, more fantastic than anything we can ever hope for. The Christian hope is not a wishy washy pie in the sky sort of hope. It’s a real tangible hope. And when we see it as the Bible describes it, then surely that is a hope worth living for and worth dying for.

            But there’s another part to this solid hope that John tells us and that is new people. And that’s you and me if we are Christians trusting in the death of Jesus. See what John says in verse 4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” In order to inhabit this perfectly new place, God will make us new too. As we’ll see in a moment, than means no more sin, but it also here means no death, no pain, no suffering. For the old order of things has passed away. As we know all too well, this world means pain and suffering. It means tears and grief. But that is part of the old order of sin and death. In the new world, such pain will not exist. Just think of all the tears we have shed this last month. Perhaps tears of grief over losing a loved one. Tears of pain in some physical or mental anguish. Tears of disappointment over a lost job, tears of frustration and anguish, tears of anger. But there will be no tears in heaven. God will personally wipe away the tears. We will experience only absolute joy and bliss as we see God face to face.

            So what does all this mean in the present for us as we battle on in the light of this future hope? Well listen to these words of David Watson who was a world wide Christian leader in the 60’s and 70’s and who died from cancer in 1984. Just before he died he wrote these words: “A doctor complained recently: ‘Our patients expect us to make them immortal!’ Many cling tenaciously to this life because they fear there is nothing more to come. Today’s preoccupation with youth and youthfulness demonstrates the same deep seated anxiety about the future, especially the last enemy death, of which cancer seems the most frightening symbol. One day we stand to lose everything of this world, and no-one knows when that day will come. Once we have lost our lives to God, however, we belong eternally to him; and in Christ we have all that is ultimately important. If we spend our whole time worrying about ourselves we have missed the point of our existence…God offers no promise to shield us from the evil of this fallen world. There is no immunity guaranteed from sickness, pain, sorrow and death. But what he does pledge is his never failing presence for those of us who have found him in Christ. Nothing can destroy that. Always he is with us. And in the long run, that is all we need to know.” This future hope does not take away our present pain, but it enables us to see we are heading for something infinitely better. Our pain is not for ever. And God’s presence with us begins now. He has promised not to leave us or forsake us. And that should be a great encouragement to us as we struggle on in this life. We know we’re heading for a fantastic solid earthly reality. And in the meantime, God is with us and will not let us go. So understand this first point- that we have a solid hope. And both the creation and us will be remade perfectly. A solid hope.

2) An Intimate Hope

Secondly this hope we have is an intimate hope. And once again there are two aspects to this intimate hope. And these two aspects of intimacy are seen in John’s use of two images to explain the people of God. One is a bride and the other a city. Now a big misunderstanding of this chapter is to think that it is describing where we as Christians are going to live in the future, or what heaven will be like- a place paved with gold streets and the like. Actually both the bride and the city are descriptions of us as God’s people. John is not so much describing where we are going to live in the future, but what kind of people we are going to be and what we will experience. It’s a symbolic picture of people not places. In Revelation 21-22, if you are a Christian, you are effectively looking in a mirror. You are seeing yourself, but yourself perfectly transformed in God’s new creation.

            And the picture John presents is one of intimacy. First in the symbol of the bride, that intimacy is seen in our relationship with God. You see fundamentally these two chapters are about God. It is God that is the entire focus of this future hope. Have a look at verse 2: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” Verse 3 is perhaps one of the most precious verses in the Bible because it sums up everything we have been heading for since the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Mankind was designed specifically for a relationship with God in a way that nothing else in all creation is designed for, not even the angels. And in order to restore that relationship ruined by sin, God himself comes to earth as a man in the person of his Son Jesus Christ to die on a cross. But now in the new world that God will make God can live with his people again. Now the dwelling of God is with men. I will live with them, he says. The cross of Christ has paved the way for this glorious moment when we can see God face to face. So glance on to 22 vv 3-4: “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” The curse of sin has gone. So we will see God and serve him. And to help us grasp the wonder of that relationship John uses the picture of a beautiful bride waiting for her husband.

Now I’m told that for the bride the best thing about the wedding day is not the food, not the honeymoon, not even the mandatory disco afterwards. No the best thing for the bride on her wedding is seeing her husband to be waiting for her at the end of the aisle. Or at least that’s what I hope was going on at my wedding day. And the expectancy of a bride meeting her husband is a small picture of the church longing to meet their God and king face to face. And so much of the imagery of Revelation 21 is taken up with helping us to grasp the wonder of that relationship. So for example the measurements of the city in verses 15-17 make a perfect cube. And the only other place in the Bible where a perfect cube is mentioned is the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple in the OT where God’s presence is said to be. It’s a way of saying that the whole of this new creation is the Holy of Holies. It’s where God is, but this time we can be there as well with him, face to face. And if we need more help to understand, John says in verse 22: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.” You see you don’t need a Temple in heaven, because God is the Temple. He is there with his people.

            Now if I were to ask you what is the best thing about this future hope that God has in store for us, I wonder what you would say? Perfect beauty? Perfect friendship? No more tears? No more suffering? Or would you say that actually the best thing about heaven is that God will be there. Because that is the be all and end of heaven. That we are there with him. Words cannot express how utterly wonderful will be the experience of God’s people as they meet the one they have followed and suffered for all those years in the old world. That is why heaven will be so wonderful. That is why talk of eternity is nothing to worry about, because we will spend eternity with him. And that is what should fire our desire and delight in this world as we look forward to the world to come. It’s what makes all the pain and suffering of this world worth it. And it means that the challenge of this world in the light of this great intimate hope is to begin to pour our hearts and lives into our relationship with God whom we will see one day face to face. We’re preparing to meet our husband!

            Just recently I came across a quotation from Richard Baxter who was a pastor in the 17th seventeenth century. And when Baxter was 35 he took up the practice of meditating on heaven for half an hour each day. And commending the same sort of thing to his readers he wrote this: “If you want light and heat, why are you not more in the sunshine? For [because you do not think about heaven] your soul is like a lamp not lighted, and your duty is like a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal daily from this altar, and see if your offering will not burn. Keep close to this reviving fire and see if your [heart] will not be warmed.” Do you see his point? We need to be thinking daily about this glorious hope and particularly of being with our Saviour, otherwise the fire in our souls will go out. And the challenge therefore in this present world is to keep growing with God. For we will be spending eternity with him.

But that leads to a second aspect of this intimacy that John talks about. Because he speaks not just of a bride looking forward to seeing her husband, but of a city, by which John speaks of our relationships with others. So notice what John talks about in verse 9 of chapter 21: “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” So John thinks he is going to see a bride, but he actually sees a city. The bride is the city- the bride and the city refer not to a place, but people. This is a description of you and me if we are Christians. Now it has to be said that perhaps our first thought when we think of a city is that it describes something fairly grim! Think of the sprawl of a London or New York or New Delhi or Sao Paulo. Those cities, like any gathering of people in this world are full of sadness and pain and rebellion and loss. But of course in the new world that God is going to make for us, there will be no sin and no evil and no tears. So what John is showing us is that this future hope is an intimate community of people. It’s a city in the best sense of the community of God’s people living together. Already in Revelation, John has shown his readers wonderful glimpses of God’s people together in perfect harmony praising the living God. It’s a picture of what the new creation will be like. Heaven is a community of sinless people totally focused on their God. And that’s why the church community now is so important. In a way, as we gather on a Sunday or a Wednesday, then we are closer to the heavenly reality than we realise. Because our relationships with one another now as Christians are ones we will have for all eternity. So yes we need each other to keep us going in the Christian life, and that’s one very good reason for meeting together. But another is that as God’s people we will be spending eternity together. Now you might be tempted to look around the church and think that heaven could be fairly hellish. But remember everyone will be perfect. Totally loving, totally selfless, totally like Jesus. And if that is what we are heading for, then we need to start reflecting that future hope in the way we deal with one another as God’s people in this world. For our relationship with God is expressed in our relationship with one another. An intimate hope.

3) A Secure Hope

Thirdly this hope is a secure hope. Because whilst all this sounds fantastic, is there a chance it won’t happen? And is there a chance that the whole thing will go wrong again as it did in Eden at the beginning of time? Well there is no chance of failure in any sense at all. Because as we have seen all the way through the book, the security of God’s people is never in doubt. And it’s highlighted again here in the description of the city. So notice how in verse 12 of chapter 21 that the city has a high wall with twelve gates guarded by angels. And the foundations of the city in verse 14 are inscribed with the names of the apostles of Jesus. It’s symbolic of the fact that the people of God rest on the teaching of the apostles. God’s people are built on a solid foundation. And not only that but the dimensions of the city and its walls are astonishing. Verse 16: “The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. [The angel] measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man's measurement, which the angel was using.” Again the point is not a literal measurement- if so, it would be from here to Athens. And the wall would be 200 feet thick. The whole point is symbolic of utter impregnability. This city cannot be attacked or destroyed. And above it is God’s city, which is why in verse 11 it shines with the glory of God and why you get a long description of the city covered in precious stones. It is totally secure.

            But maybe evil could still come again? Could there be another Fall. Well no, because chapter 20 has already shown us the utter destruction of evil. And in verse 27 of chapter 21 we find that only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life are in this city. The new creation, heaven is for Christians only. Those who have trusted Jesus. It’s another reason why if you are not a Christian, I would urge you to investigate Christ and trust him as soon as you can. Because that is the only way you or I will be in heaven. Not through being good or English or moral, because we are not good enough. Rather only by trusting the cross of Jesus will we be in heaven. And one final truth gives us absolute certainty that this hope is secure. And that is in verse 5: “He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” Ultimately the reason this hope is secure is because God says it is. What he says will happen will happen. For his word is true. It’s a secure hope.

4) A Practical Hope

And that brings us to our final point which is that this hope is a practical hope, as we look at these last few verses of chapter 22. The future hope is glorious, but we’re not there yet. We live today in the last times. So how will we act? Well the answer is that the future hope inspires present action. We live in the light of the future. But without hope, there is very little reason to live now. That’s exactly what happened with the inhabitants of Flagstaff, a little town in the northern United States. The town was to be flooded, as part of a large lake for which a dam was being built. In the months before it was to be flooded, all improvements and repairs in the whole town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? So, week by week, the whole town became more and more bedraggled, more gone to seed, more woebegone. One of the inhabitants explained it this way: “Where there is no hope of the future, there is no power in the present.”

            But notice how the future hope inspires present action in these verses. For example we need to stay pure in verse 11. We must continue to do what is right. We need to keep battling with sin, because our citizenship is in heaven. Prove your status by your actions, says John. Keep working at your holiness and developing a hatred for sin. Stay pure. In verse 18, we’re told to stay faithful. We’re not to add anything or take away anything from this prophecy. It’s a image of sticking to what has been revealed. And if we want to make it to see the hope realised, we must remain faithful in the truth. Stand firm in the glorious revealed truth of God’s word and whatever happens don’t give in. Despite the rampant false teaching and persecution of the evil one, stay faithful. And then lastly, stay hopeful. The refrain that pierces these verses three times is “Come Lord Jesus”. And notice what he says in verse 20: “He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming soon.’” Yes, the Lord will return. That’s his promise. And it’s the only promise he’s got left to keep. He’s kept all the others, and there is no doubting he will keep this one.

            So as we finish this remarkable book, how do you respond? Will you press on, trusting the Lamb who was slain? Or will you continue to rebel, rejecting the Lamb and going the way of the Dragon and the beasts. One path leads to glory, the other to destruction. There are only two ways to live. And one day everything will be made clear. Because God is clearly in charge. In Jesus we have the victory and evil is a doomed enemy. And whilst this life is hard and often we find ourselves suffering in all sorts of ways, yet the Christian is secure. So take heart, keep going, keep trusting, keep remembering that glorious hope. And remember too that the key to survival is not us, but God. Which is why John ends by reminding us that we need God’s grace to survive. Verse 21: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.”

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