Revelation 21 and 22
This talk was given by Neil Banks on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church over the Internet.
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I don’t whether you know, there’s a problem in the world at the moment, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed. But there’s always been a problem in the world. Each generation of Christian has had to face challenges, trials, tribulations. Even the pre-Christian followers of Judaism found their lives constantly interrupted by corruption, violence, and death. In recent weeks, Paul has been preaching about the Holy Spirit and church as community and how we’re in a period of societal change.
We’re looking at the parts of Revelation according to John that Martha and Sarah just read for us. Think about how this matters to us as Christians and as a fellowship. I have to be honest with you, I find Revelation a challenge, and I know I’m not alone in this. It’s the only prophecy in the New Testament Bible, and it’s a source of great debate among scholars and academics for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
There is so much packed into the book and much of it seems so strange and indecipherable. Now, we’re not going to pull apart the Book of Revelation today to try and solve these issues, partly because we don’t have enough time and most definitely because it’s way beyond my ability and expertise. I’m someone who freely admits, I don’t know my Bible as well as I should, but I’ve really found in recent months the videos and podcasts of the Bible Project, which is a US Christian non-profit that seeks to educate and spread the word of God.
It’s been a great help to my personal understanding of the Bible, it’s called “Messages and Central Themes”. I’ll be talking about some of the message from the Bible Project today. If you have a few minutes to spare, I can recommend their website or YouTube channel for well-laid out explanations of the books and themes of the Bible, so do have a look at that. Now, I’ve wrestled with the message today because what I really wanted to say was that Revelation is the end of an epic book. That epic book tells us time and time again that God made a beautiful creation for us to dwell with Him, and we turned our back on it.
Then the Bible tells us that God wants us to come back to Him and we constantly turn our back on that and yet God then as a loving parent with unconditional love continues to open those, to hold out His arms and say, “Come back.” That was the message I wanted to share, but that’s a very short message. The virtual Sunday school video is 13 minutes today, so I’ve got to at least match that in duration. So let’s look a little bit at the background to John’s revelations to try and understand what’s going on. The Book of Revelation tells us what John had seen in a vision about God’s message and about what Jesus had said and done.
There’s three main messages to Revelation. The first is that there are evil forces at work in the world and Christians may suffer and die for their beliefs. Secondly, Jesus is Lord and conqueror of all, and sin and death will be overthrown as will those who oppose God. Finally, God has wonderful rewards in store for those who follow and remain faithful to him despite the suffering and even death that this may bring as a result.
Now, at the time of this vision, John was exiled on the island of Patmos, which in the times of the Roman Empire was a bit like Alcatraz. It was seen as impossible to escape. Essentially, he was a political prisoner of the Roman Empire at the time for expressing his Christian beliefs. It’s believed that his apocalyptic vision came circa 67 AD, but it wasn’t necessarily written down until 96 AD.
John’s writing to the seven churches of Asia Minor that were also suffering persecution and threat of death or expressing their Christian beliefs. In Chapter 2 of Revelation, we can read John’s individual messages for each of those seven churches specific to the challenges and tribulations that they’re facing. Now, I’m sure that persecution, pain, and risk of death certainly focuses minds.
I believe that John is seeking to motivate, reassure, and calm the followers of Christ in those churches. He’s essentially telling them to stay the course, to ride out the storm safe in the knowledge of God’s promise being kept one day. Now, John’s vision is an example of apocalyptic literature that can be found mainly throughout the Old Testament, and Revelation is unique in the New Testament as a piece of apocalyptic writing.
Now, the word apocalypse is confusing to us because, in modern times, it’s come to signify a catastrophic end. Apocalypse movies are full of cataclysmic destruction, explosions, death, and violence. That’s great if you work in the special effects industry in the movies but not great for understanding what apocalypse means in the biblical sense. For in the Bible, an apocalypse is what happens when someone is exposed to the reality of God’s perspective in a way so powerful and unforgettable that it transforms how a person views everything.
Apocalypse is a God-given jolt that draws back the curtain on the mundane familiar and stable existence of our daily lives. To put that in context, let’s think about the simple act of meeting a friend for a coffee or visiting loved ones. Up until March 2020, we just took this for granted. Hop on a plane for a weekend break, commute two hours to work and back, visit a museum, take in a show, perhaps, we had become too familiar with our reality and took too much for granted in our lives.
Now, I’m not trying to say that the global pandemic is a God-given apocalypse, but in its own way, it has shown just how fragile what we know as society actually is, and how easily it can be disrupted but also the new things and new ways that can result from that disruption. I wonder as Revelation 21:5 says, I wonder what things you would like to leave in the past and how you would like to move forward and live a new now.
The Bible is meant to jolt us, to shake us from our view of the world, and to deconstruct the way we’ve always seen things, replacing it with a new and enduring perspective from God. When we see the world through the lens of the Bible, it gives us a new reality. We become free of old worn-out paths and everything begins to look different, we get a divine clarity in our lives.
In contrast to the total wipe-out of a modern-day apocalypse, biblical apocalypse is more about reorientation or restoration back to what matters to God. Think of the restoration of an old painting, layers of dirt and grime being carefully peeled back to show the true beauty and vibrancy of the original creation. I believe that to understand Revelation, we have to go right back to where the Bible story begins with the beauty of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2, and that our place with God in the Garden of Eden.
In Genesis, humanity for that is what Adam means in Hebrew, was meant to dwell in perfect harmony with God, partnering with Him and building and caring for a flourishing beautiful world. Of course, as we know, that wasn’t how it ended up, and the actions of Adam and Eve condemned us to exile and death. We couldn’t remain in the Garden of Eden in our corrupted state and so banishment was our punishment.
What follows on from Genesis in the Bible is chapter after chapter outlining the reality of our choice. With Hebrew scriptures chronicling the possible heroes and heroines who might reunite us to God and their abject failures along the way, the message is that flawed humanity will always make mistakes and put other interests before God. We will worship false idols and follow corrupt leaders in a world of sin, immorality, and death. These visions from the Bible, remind us time and time again that corrupt rulers and nations will fall like dominoes. They will be fleeting in nature and not something that we can rely on.
In contrast, God’s love is unconditional and enduring. In Jeremiah 31, we see after all the raging and threats of what is to befall Israel and God’s chosen people, that God still promises salvation. In Ezekiel 36, we see God’s promise to restore Israel, including restoration and bounty and beauty akin to that of the Garden of Eden. In Joel 3:17-21, we see God’s promise of abundant times, protection for the innocent, and punishment for the guilty. In Micah 4:1-7, we see how God promises to end conflict and bring peace, ruling over his people from Mount Zion.
The Bible is full of books and prophecies and letters pointing to God’s plan to restore His kingdom among us. Spend some time reading, think about all the times that God promises that He will bring us again to live in peace with Him in an abundant and beautiful place. God’s goal is to reorient our lives to what truly matters. God still wants humans to live abundant lives full of His wisdom and to rule an ordered world with Him.
Last week, I attended my auntie’s funeral. I said something of the times we live in that the biggest gathering of people that I’ve seen since lockdown one was a funeral. While the feeling of the family that this was an untimely death, which made their suffering all the harder, the funeral sought to joyfully remember the life of my aunt. I particularly like the minister’s description of the dent that we can make in people’s lives. Dents are noticeable, memorable, and long-lasting.
If you’re a car owner, you’ll remember how and when you acquired the first dents on your pristine bodywork, and you see them every time you go out to drive it. I also learned a great deal about my aunt at that funeral, things I’d never know. We weren’t a particularly close family, but I do remember a kind of shy presence at family get-togethers. I had no idea, for example, that she was a talented pianist, or just how strongly she viewed her face.
She had a love of biblical paintings and was working on a set of tapestries depicting scenes from the Bible, which is sadly unfinished. I had no idea how my aunt and uncle met, or that my uncle was quite the cool dude in the ’70s being a DJ. I’m glad I found all of this out, but it’s sad I wasn’t aware of it until after she passed. I’m sure, for many of us, it’s often a regret that we don’t get answers to all the questions we want to ask loved ones before they leave us.
It’s made me think a great deal about the family members who remain and who I haven’t seen in a long time. Thankfully, as Christians, we know that death is not the end because we have the Bible to tell us that God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son, Jesus, to live with us in the sin and dirt and corruption so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. In Revelation, is God making all things new, or is He making all new things? Well, John is taking us back to the resurrected Jesus.
The risen Jesus was not an apparition, he was a physical being. He ate food and drank wine and talked with his followers about the kingdom of God over the course of a few weeks. They could see the scars on his hands and feet. There was no mistake. They were touching and talking with the same Jesus they followed up in the hills of Galilee, but the resurrected Jesus was also different. Some of the disciples didn’t even recognise Him at first. While Jesus had a physical body, it was physical in a way that was clearly different from ours.
He could inexplicably appear and disappear in different rooms. There were no categories that prepared them for this moment. All they could do is tell the stories we find in the New Testament. This paradox of the same Jesus and the different Jesus is what John was trying to communicate about the new heavens and earth in the Book of Revelation. He was convinced that the future of the universe walked out to the tomb on Easter morning, simultaneously the same and different.
What was true of the risen Jesus is what will be true for all creation when heaven and earth completely reunite. John described the new creation as a marriage of heaven and earth. Heaven is represented as both city and bride coming down out of God’s heavenly domain and landing on earth. Much like the staircase that Jacob saw in his dream. John called the city-bride a new Jerusalem, so marvellous that he could only describe it in terms of brilliant stones.
Jerusalem itself was a powerful symbol for John. It was the first and only city where God resided in a permanent holy house, the first city where kings worship the true creator. At the heart of the Israelites’ Promised Land, Jerusalem represented the ultimate Promised Land all restored creation. John depicts the reunion of heaven and earth as the descent of a New Jerusalem. Unlike the old, corrupt, and dishonoured Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem would be ruled by a divine king, the new city would be built by God, not by human hands.
John also recalls the Garden of Eden to describe the renewed creation. We see the tree of life there, accessible to all and eternally yielding fruit. This is because there was an eternal river of life, which could dispense nourishment to all new creation because it flows from God Himself. In contrast to Genesis, John’s account of the garden wasn’t represented by a sole couple, but John sees all nations, they’re working to cultivate the garden, as Adam and Eve did in Genesis.
For John, the fulfilment of God’s purpose through Jesus would result in the restoration of humans to their place as co-rulers of God’s world, ready to work with God, to take creation into uncharted territory. The message I said I wanted to say, which was Revelation is the end of the Bible, and it reaffirms just the power and simplicity of the message throughout the Bible, which is to follow Christ will in time when God’s timing decides it will lead to a fabulous salvation, something that is described as this magical paradise.
We don’t know exactly what that will be, but we know that if we do stay the course and follow Jesus, that we will one day witness that. The end of the Bible in Revelation, I believe is really a new beginning. As we come to the present day, I think it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap that perhaps some people have with Revelation, which is to try and look for the signs of the coming of the Lord, to look for when will that happen, and are we in those fabled end times?
I personally don’t think that’s what the message is about. I think the message is there to tell us that following Christ is the route to salvation and that rather than sitting there, perhaps working out, whether it’s now or in a thousand years, is not what we can do as Christians, but we should be staying the course, following Christ and demonstrating to others the power of His message and His love. The end of John’s apocalypse, it leaves us not with the end of the world but with a renewed world where injustice is gone and humanity is united in self-sacrificial love and where all of creation is cared for. I think that is a great thing to try and aspire to while we wait for that fantastic day. Thank you.
References and sources
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