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Revelation’s picture of a new Jerusalem

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Today’s bible study is Revelation 21:4: God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.

At first glance, this seems to be a very easy to understand and reassuring verse. We all want God to wipe away our tears. We all wish for no more death or sorrow and pain. But, when we look at the Book of Revelations and take this passage in context, it becomes quite a bit more difficult and we really need to put it into historical context to understand it.

This is the Seventh Picture in Revelations, a picture of the New Jerusalem. The phrase ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ does not mean that God will wipe out the previous creation and start all over again. It refers to the eschatological renewal and fulfillment of creation as cited in Isaiah, Matthew, and 2 Peter. The sea had always symbolized the anti creation forces of chaos. It is part of the heavenly worship scene, tamed and part of God’s good creation. Here it disappears entirely. There may be a personal note as well: the sea separated John from his churches, but in the final picture there will be no more separation.

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem that will become the ultimate home of the people of God is not original with John. Like other Christian authors before and beside him, John found this idea already present in the apocalyptic tradition that came to him. This tradition included even such details as the descent of the holy city to earth on the last day, the imagery of God’s throne, seeing the face of God, the tree of life, jeweled construction and golden streets and gates of pearl. The many fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls that have parallels to the New Jerusalem show that John is utilizing a tradition widespread in Judaism.

John assures us that death will be no more. This is a reassuring idea, yet one that is almost impossible to understand. Death has long been accepted as a part of the human cycle of life. We are surely all going to die someday, aren’t we?

But study a bit more: One mode of representing the future world is that of via negative (by using a negative rather than positive explanation). While the future transcendent world can hardly be represented in this-world terms by saying what it is, it can be portrayed by saying what will not be there: the sea, tears, death, mourning, crying, pain, the cowardly, the faithless, polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, moon, night, unclean things, shut gates, and anyone practicing abomination or falsehood.

This is quite a list, yet it seems to cover almost every evil that we see in our world today. These are the people we avoid, the people we fear, and the criminals we prosecute. They are the emotions that we all feat and the situations that none of us can easily accept or explain.

Oh Lord, let us learn through you that such a place does exist and that although we cannot define it, you know what it is. Grant that we may, when the day comes, find a place with you in your glorious kingdom and know the absence of fear and grief. Give us the promise of a new dawn and a new day filled with light in which to serve you and learn of your holy ways.

References: The People’s New Testament Commentary by M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock and The MacArthur Bible Commentary by John MacArthur.

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