The language and symbolism of the Apocalypse of Saint John (also called the Revelation of Saint John) seems bizarre, cryptic, and sensational. It's understandable why many avoid it. The Apocalypse is the only book of the New Testament that is not included in the Orthodox Church's liturgical lectionary readings. I suppose it's because the Apocalypse wasn't universally accepted as being canonical until quite late. That being said, the Church recognizes the Apocalypse as inspired and canonical. There is no such thing as "semi-canonical." Therefore, the Apocalypse must have value for believers. In fact the Apocalypse promises a blessing to those who hear and do its words.
My aim is to keep these reflections rooted in what is textually clear, practical, and consistent with historic Orthodox teaching. A list of helpful resources is included below.
This chapter gives me several hints about how to approach the Apocalypse.
The opening words of the Apocalypse affirm its relevance (1:3). A blessing is promised to those who "hear the words of this prophecy, and keep the things which are written in it." Apparently the Apocalypse is meant to affect the way people live, not merely to satisfy their curiosity about future events.
The word "show' in 1:1 is a term which means "to signify" in a poetic, symbolic way. Scholars point out that Apocalyptic literature is a specific genre that uses vivid and sensational language. Poetry is the language of imagination. In other words, I need a prayerful imagination as I approach the Apocalypse - not making up my own images, but letting the inspired visions impregnate my mind. Visions can be real without being literal.
The opening words of the Apocalypse also alert me to a pattern (1:7). There are hundreds of Old Testament allusions in the Apocalypse (some count more than 500). In order to get what's going on, I need to be familiar with the Old Testament.
In addition, the Apocalypse gives me a new perspective on time (1:1, 3, 19). Even though the word "soon" is used, I suspect that "soon" doesn't mean what I typically mean. How long is soon? Jesus always refused to say when the end would be. Commentators have pointed out that in apocalyptic literature, words like soon, today, and near don't necessarily refer to strict chronology. In order to make sense of Christ's words in the Gospels, it seems one must recognize that Christ's kingdom is already here, but not yet here (Mark 1:15; John 4:23; Revelation 1:6; Matthew 6:10). Is it possible that soon refers to both present and future? This will affect the way I read the Apocalypse. I expect that these visions refer to a mixture of present and future realities. Certainly these visions of the future should affect me now, shaping the way I live when I wake up and go to work tomorrow.
Finally, Christ is the center of the Apocalypse - not the dragon, beasts, harlot, or anyone else. In this present world it often seems like Christ is anything but victorious. One might assume Jesus is on the sidelines, irrelevant and unnoticed. (When Saint John wrote the Apocalypse, he was exiled on the island of Patmos - hardly a mover and shaker in the ancient world.) Yet the first chapter of the Apocalypse smashes all of these delusions with a dazzling vision - Christ is at the Center and towers over all (1:9-18).
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me to listen to the words and visions revealed to your servant, John the Apostle. Grant me grace to approach the Apocalypse with humility, reverence, and faith. Illuminate my heart and mind with the light of these revelations so that I may live in continual awareness of your centrality and sovereignty. Help me always to watch and pray. Amen.
My reflections on the Apocalypse have been shaped by several teachers and authors over the years. The following resources have been especially helpful:
- Hopko, Thomas. Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation within the Orthodox Christian Tradition. [Audio CDs] St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006.
- Hopko, Thomas. Interview on Ancient Faith Today (June 23, 1013): End Times Prophecy According to Orthodox Holy Tradition.
- Koester, Craig. Revelation and the End of All Things. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
- Pender, William. Revelation. Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
- Peterson, Eugene. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.
- Witherington, Ben. Revelation. CambridgeUniversity Press, 2003.
Chapters 2 & 3
I confess that I dislike church politics. (Actually, a stronger word would be more accurate.) I sympathize with those who've had such distasteful experiences in church politics that they're ready to wash their hands of church altogether. Too many pastors and bishops have used their power to benefit themselves and hurt their parishioners. On the other hand, too many prickly, ego-filled parishioners have hurt faithful and humble pastors. I like church politics about as much as I like having a colonoscopy.
However, I think it's fitting that I feel guilty about my distaste of church politics. After all, I believe the Church is not an invisible phantom made up of isolated people committed to their own individualistic piety. The old Russian proverb captures a New Testament truth: "The only thing we can do alone is perish." The Church is a body. A body needs order and organization. In other words, politics.
Much of the New Testament was written to help believers know how to function together. How can I learn to be long-suffering if I'm never around people who force me to suffer long? How can I enjoy the essential blessings of Church if there is no one to administer and serve those blessings? I suppose the best I can do right now is to thank God for those willing to serve Him in church politics, pray for their well-being, and thank God I'm not one of them.
Enter the Apocalypse. The words I read in chapters two and three change my view of the Church. Not just the universal Church, but the specific, local congregations that embody the Church. Congregations filled with pettiness, hypocrisy, and ordinariness. The seven churches addressed in this section of the Apocalypse awaken me to reality about the Church.
Why the number seven? Typically, the number seven symbolizes completeness. These seven churches seem to represent all kinds of churches in their varied conditions. The seven churches faced a variety of challenges: cold and loveless orthodoxy (Ephesus), worldliness, false teaching, and immorality (Pergamos and Thyatira), self deception (Sardis), persecutions (Smyrna and Philadelphia), and cozy self-sufficiency (Laodicea). Some of these churches were embarrassingly flawed. Sounds a lot like many congregations today. But right when I'm tempted to write off the organized Church, I'm confronted with a dazzling vision: Who is walking among these flawed lamp stands? Jesus Christ Himself!
I'm also struck by how deceiving appearances can be. One church is poor and afflicted, but Christ says, "You are rich" (2:9). Another church thinks they are rich and in need of nothing. Yet Christ says to them, "You are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" (3:17). The Church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive. I can almost hear someone gushing about this church: "You've got to visit that church in Sardis. They're so alive!" Yet the divine assessment was that they were dead (3:1). To each church Jesus says, "I know. . . ." Only Christ's assessment of a church really matters.
It's also revealing that Christ found a few faithful believers even in the dead Sardis congregation (3:4). I'm better off judging myself than judging others. There have always been flawed congregations - some fatally flawed. I must keep my eyes fixed on the One who walks among the lamp stands. He promises that those who overcome shall be clothed in white (3:5).
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, open my eyes to Your presence in the churches. Rescue me from the despair that comes from fixating on the the flaws of Your congregations. Give me ears to hear Your voice, and help me by Your Spirit to continually repent. May I, by Your grace, overcome and be clothed in white. For You alone are my hope and my salvation. Amen.
Chapters 4 & 5
The Apocalypse and Liturgy
In chapters four and five, Saint John receives a vision of heavenly worship centered on a throne. From its early days, the Church patterned its liturgy after this God-centered vision. In fact, the Church has traditionally understood the earthly liturgy to be a participation in the heavenly liturgy (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24). This also explains why Orthodox liturgy has similarities with OT Jewish worship (altar, vestments, candles, incense, etc.). Old Covenant worship was patterned after heavenly worship. The New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. It's not surprising to find continuity between OT Jewish worship, NT liturgy, and the heavenly liturgy revealed to Saint John.
The dominant image is a lamb. It's a startling image because the reader has been prepared to expect a lion, the symbol of power and domination (5:5). Instead, we discover that the Lion is a Lamb who conquers not by inflicting death, but by sacrificially dying.
The situation of the original hearers makes this image even more vivid. The Roman Emperor was a lion-like ruler, often seen sitting on a throne and surrounded by admirers. It was typical for attendants to dress in white and cast golden crowns at the Emperor's feet. People would cry out, "Worthy!" This vision awakens us to reality. It may appear that emperors and politicians are in control. But the Lamb is on the throne.
What does it mean to be a “victorious Christian?” There have been two competing visions throughout the history of the Church. The “lion path” – jockeying for power and flexing the muscle. The “lamb path” – power through sacrifice and weakness. What path is portrayed in chapter five? Christians are called to be followers of the Lamb. This involves self-denial and sacrifice. (See Mark 8:31-37; Romans 8:36; 2 Corinthians 4:10-12; 1 John 2:6; 1 Peter.)
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me to participate in the heavenly liturgy with faith, reverence, and love. May the vision of the Lamb on the throne inspire me to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow You.
Chapter six of the Apocalypse is horrifying. Seven seals to be opened. Different colored horses portraying terrible things on earth: war, disease, pain, famine, injustice, cosmic disturbances.
How am I to understand these cryptic “seven seals?” Are these seals to be understood as chronologically sequential events? This is a specific kind of literary genre called apocalyptic literature. In this kind of literature, numbers are often symbols. The number seven usually symbolizes unity or wholeness. Each seal is a different color on the artist’s canvas. Evil is portrayed in its diverse, yet unified grossness.
The text of Revelation defies a strict, chronological timeline. For example, 6:12-14 pictures a decisive end to the heavenly bodies. Yet in 8:7-12, they’re back again. In 8:7 all the green grass is burned up. But in 9:4 the grass is apparently back again. Events in Revelation are presented in visionary cycles (seals, trumpets, bowls, etc.). Although these cycles often seem to overlap, there is still a sense of progression throughout the book. It’s like a symphony with variations of repeated themes building to a crescendo and final end.
The original hearers of Revelation (the seven churches) had faced (or would soon face) evils and tragedies that were remarkably similar to the visions of the seven seals: devastating earthquakes, bloody civil war, economic hardship, famine, disruption of the food supply, disease, and many other calamities – including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This eruption caused the entire area to be enveloped in a dark cloud of ash. The sky was literally darkened. Naturally people thought it was the end of the world.
I suspect that the vision of these seals includes, but also transcends, the experience of the seven original churches. What was happening to Christians at that time tells us what is happening to Christians in all times.
So … what am I to make of all these horrors? Evil is real. But evil is not the whole story. Who does the unsealing? The Lamb! The Apocalypse portrays evil in context – part of a limited episode and not the end of the story. Evil never has the last word.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me to remember that evil never has the last word. I thank you for your present and future victory. Amen.
The Message of Chapter 7
After portraying the first six of seven terrifying visions (“the seals”), chapter six ends with a question: “For the great day of his wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” The expected answer is “No one.” But chapter seven reveals a startling answer. Who can stand? Those who are sealed by God (also known as the 144,000).
Who are the sealed? (See Ezekiel 9:4-6 for the Old Testament roots of the concept of “sealing.”) Notice in Ezekiel that God sealed his people not by taking them out of trouble, but by protecting them in the midst of calamity.
Who are the 144,000? If we take Revelation on its own terms, we would expect the number to be symbolic, not literal. 144,000 is 12x12x1000 – complete, super-fulfilled, not a single one missing. This group is pictured as a definite number, known to God. But it also may be that, from a human point of view, this is an innumerable number. Why? The same group may be pictured in verse 9 – “a great multitude that no one could count.” This would be an example of Hebrew parallelism – “rhymed meanings” – saying the same thing twice, but in different ways. This parallelism would follow an earlier pattern in chapter five: John first “heard” about the Lion, and then he “saw” the Lamb. The lion was perceived through hearing and the Lamb through seeing. But they were the same character. Here in chapter seven, John heard the number of those who were sealed – 144,000. But then he sees a great multitude that no one could count. So it’s reasonable to see the sealed 144,000 as the multitude no one could count.
Who are these sealed, protected servants of God? The answer is given in 7:13-14. “These in white robes … they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This is a beautiful picture of the redeemed servants of God – all true Christians. What does blood usually do to clothes? Stain. But this blood makes clean!
These visions may also contain a reference to Christian baptism. One church father (Tertullian) refers to the fact that believers were sealed with the sign of the cross on their foreheads as part of the rite of baptism. Orthodox churches today still refer to “sealing” in the practice of chrismation immediately following baptism. The “white robe” has also been associated with baptism from the earliest days of the Church.
The last verse of chapter seven says that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” What does this imply? There are tears, but tears are not ultimate or final. The seal does not ward off all suffering. But it does shield from the direct wrath of God and it assures of ultimate victory despite present suffering. Instead of seeking shelter from God and the Lamb (6:16-17), Christians seek shelter in God and the Lamb (7:15-17).
Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, help me to remember your presence with me even when I walk through difficult storms. I thank you for the grace of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Chapters 8 & 9
Many people regard prayer as an innocent past-time – maybe psychologically comforting, but hardly making any difference in the “real world.” Chapters eight and nine challenge this delusion with a remarkable vision revealing the other side of prayer.
Chapter eight begins with “silence in heaven.” What is silence for? Silence is for listening! Listening to what. The references to censers and incense are striking. (See Luke 1:9-11 and Malachi 1:11.) Incense has traditionally been used in Christian worship to symbolize the prayers of God’s people. The text confirms that the prayers of God’s people are pictured in this vision (8:3-4).
What happens as a result of these prayers? An angel scoops fire from the altar and hurls it to the earth. This ushers in the visions of the seven trumpets (chapters eight and nine). God’s people cry, “How long, Lord?” (6:10). Then their prayers make a difference. The vision of chapter eight reveals the other side of prayer – truly heard and significant.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you for the gift of prayer. Strengthen my faith by this vision of prayer heard in heaven. Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me. Amen.
Chapters 10 & 11
Some truth is not revealed.
The angel described in 10:1-3 is truly immense and awe-inspiring. Imagine John’s anticipation about what the angel was about to reveal! John was “about to write” (10:4), but is suddenly stopped. He hears a voice from heaven: “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down” (10:4). What can we learn from this? Some truth is simply not revealed. That's an important fact for me to remember. There’s no place for a “know-it-all” attitude in God’s kingdom. Mature Christians recognize that they can not get their minds around everything. This humble posture is essential for healthy Christian living. (See Romans 11:33-36, Deuteronomy 29:29, and Psalm 131.)
The success of Christ’s servants cannot be determined by outward appearances.
Who are the two witnesses in chapter eleven? They remind us of Moses and Elijah. The use of “lampstands” (11:4) may indicate that they also represent the Church (cf. 1:20). The two witnesses suffer disgrace after they are killed: Their corpses are put on public display. It appears that the witnesses are unsuccessful, but at last they are raised to life and fully vindicated. One cannot judge the success of a witness by outward appearances.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me to avoid restless and unhealthy speculations about truths which you have chosen to keep hidden. Help me to rest peacefully in your inscrutable wisdom. Grant me a faith that is real, a hope that is firm, and a love that is sincere. Amen.
Revelation 12 gives a startling portrayal of the Nativity story. This scene is filled with terror, suspense, conflict, a dragon, and a murderous plot. (It’s the Christmas story with the feel of Halloween.)
Who is the woman in labor? Perhaps she is a rich blur of allusions: to Israel (cf. Isaiah 66 and the context of Revelation 12); to the Church (cf. 12:17 and Galatians 4:26); and to Mary, the “Theotokos,” who gave birth to Christ. (Mary, in her “Yes” to God, has traditionally been viewed as a fitting symbol of God’s People.) Who is the dragon? Satan (12:9). Who is the baby? Jesus. (Note the allusion to Psalm 2 in 12:5.) If a dragon attacked a baby, who would be expected to win? But … surprise!
The Bible portrays the fall of Satan in stages. In Job 1-2, Satan has access to heaven as a prosecutor. At the death and resurrection of Christ, Satan is hurled from heaven (John 12:31) and effectively defeated. Revelation 12 compresses the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ into one momentous event. Satan rages on earth, not because he is powerful, but because he is endangered and ultimately doomed (12:12).
Revelation 13 pictures Satan working through two beasts, forming an unholy trinity. The first beast comes out of the sea and seems to be a composite of images from the four beasts of Daniel 7. The beast receives power from the dragon and makes war against God’s people (13:7). He conquers by inflicting death – in stark contrast to the Lamb who conquers by enduring death. The beast has an extensive empire (13:7) and is portrayed as a powerful governing authority. (The original hearers would associate this beast with the Roman Emperor.) In a broader sense, the sea beast may represent all misuses of government authority. Instead of being intimidated by the dragon-inspired state, believers are called to a life of patient endurance and faithfulness.
The second beast comes out of the earth. He is a grotesque imitation of Christ (13:11), performs great and miraculous signs (13:13), deceives the inhabitants of the earth (13:14), and mandates a kind of compulsory religion (13:14-15). The beast has a human number – 666. Although some commentators see “666” as an encoded reference to Nero, 666 also may be understood symbolically. If 777 is the number of divine perfection, then 666 is a triple failure to be divine. Instead of being deceived by dragon-inspired religion, believers are called to be wise and think clearly (13:18).
The first vision of chapter 14 is a refreshing contrast to the disturbing visions of the unholy trinity in chapters 12-13. It is a vision of joyful worship. The second and third visions portray three prophetic angels and a future harvest. How do believers cut through the fog of dragon-inspired intimidation and deception? By worshiping the Lamb and paying attention to the prophetic message of God.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, I worship you and thank you for your victory over the evil one. I thank you for being our Savior - the Lamb of God who takes away our sin and vanquishes the evil one. And I thank you for destroying the last and dreaded enemy - death itself. Glory to You, O Christ, glory to you!
Chapters 15 & 16
Chapters 15 and 16 of the Apocalypse contain two emotionally charged Greek words. The first word is thumos (wrath – 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19). The second word is orgei (fury – 16:19). Both words occur together in 14:10 and 19:15. Chapters 15 and 16 contain Revelation’s most intense and destructive cycle of judgment. The judgments pictured in chapter 16 echo the judgments that came on Egypt in the book of Exodus.
Armageddon is a term that comes from the Hebrew word “mountain” and the name “Megiddo” (a place in Northern Israel). But Megiddo is located on a plain, not a mountain. Therefore, Armageddon is likely a place that symbolizes the impending destruction of God’s enemies.
The reality of God’s wrath is unpleasant and unsettling. How should people respond to these visions of wrath? It’s important to consider God’s wrath from a biblical perspective. First, these visions of wrath are intended as warnings, similar to the plagues of Egypt. Second, those under God’s wrath have been given opportunity to repent, but have refused (16:9, 11). At the end of Revelation, the heavenly city is pictured as having no gate, open to all. The concluding invitation of Revelation is “Come, all who are thirsty” (22:17).
“There are only two kinds of people: those who say to God: “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says in the end, “Thy will be done” (C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce).
Third, God’s love is a just love. (See Revelation 6:10-11 and 8:3-5, as well as Psalm 13.) How can a loving God let injustice and cruelty go unnoticed? If you’re one of those crying out in Revelation 6:10-11, you can see how God’s wrath is a comfort.
God’s wrath is part of his love. Psalm 2 reminds us: There is no refuge from Christ, only refuge in Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, you are my refuge and comfort. Glory to you!
Chapters 17 & 18
The harlot described in chapter 17 stands in stark contrast to the woman described in chapter 12. Commentators differ on the identity of Babylon. Some see Babylon as a symbol of apostate Jerusalem. Others see Babylon as a symbol of Rome. Although the exact identity of Babylon may be disputed, the exact nature of Babylon presented here is perfectly clear. Babylon is alluring and seductive, yet repugnant. Fornication is a biblical metaphor for infidelity to God. Babylon’s world is self-centered. Worldly comforts are gained through false religion, ideology, and economic success. Babylon seduces people with power and wealth. The seduction is not easy to resist.
Babylon seems to be a fitting symbol of “the world” – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-17). Despite Babylon’s seduction, she is pictured as doomed. Her beauty is fleeting – in “one hour” she is brought to ruin (18:19). Chapter 18 contains a funeral dirge. What is the purpose of this vision? In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge is given a vision of his own funeral. This awakens him to his self-centered ways. As a result of this vision, Scrooge reforms his life. The vision of Revelation 17-18 is intended to awaken us to reality: Babylon (“the world”) is a seductive, but doomed harlot.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, deliver me from the seduction of Babylon. Save me from the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and pride in possessions. Help me to remember that the world is passing away and also its lusts, but the one who does Your will remains forever. Give me ears to hear and eyes to see. Grant me to find my joy and delight in You. Amen.
Chapters 19 & 20
Victory: The Message of Chapters 19 – 20
Jesus completely conquers evil with the sole weapon of his word.
What is the inspired response to the fall of Babylon? A joyful worship celebration! This victory celebration is not haughty or self-centered. It’s God-centered worship. This vision portrays the joyful anticipation of a wedding banquet. I see the Orthodox (and biblical) concept of "synergy" here in this text: There is action by God to make his people clean (see Ephesians 5:27), but also repentance and faith on the part of believers – the bride has made herself ready (19:7).
Finally, the moment anticipated throughout Revelation – the Great Battle. Considering the vivid details of Revelation, what might one expect? A vivid, bloody, detailed description of the battle? But … surprise! There is no contest! The Rider on the White Horse (“The Word of God”) decisively and quickly defeats his enemies. What is his only weapon? The sword coming out of his mouth. What is this sword? (See Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17.)
The defeat of the beast and the false prophet quickly leads to a mop-up operation and Satan is bound (20:1-3). Revelation seems to portray a three-fold fall of Satan: a massive defeat describe in chapter 12, bound and cast into the abyss (20:1-3), and finally cast into the lake of fire after the “thousand years” (20:10). The visions of Revelation 20 seem to be inspired by several Old Testament passages: Isaiah 24:21ff, Daniel 7, and Ezekiel 36-39.
Many Christians have understood the “millennium” to be a future, earthly reign of Christ sandwiched between preliminary judgment and final judgment. (This was called “chiliasm” in the early church.) Although Revelation is not strictly chronological, there does seem to be sequential progression in chapters 19-22. Other Christians have rejected “chiliasm” and believe the “thousand years” pictures the present age in which the Church lives in the “already-not yet” tension between Christ’s first and second comings. Jesus is portrayed as conquering through the power of his word – right now. Satan is viewed as “bound” through the victorious death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. (Although some early church fathers entertained the idea of chiliasm, the Church later rejected this teaching. Orthodox Christians believe that the Nicene Creed implicitly denies chiliasm with the use of the phrase, “Whose kingdom will have no end.”)
Should the words “thousand years” be taken literally? What is the pattern in Revelation? Numbers often seem to be used symbolically. Where is the millennium? The visions do not specify the place. The emphasis is relational – “with Christ” – not geographical. Although Christians have debated the precise nature of the millennium, the function of this vision within the context of Revelation seems clear: Discouraged Christians can take comfort in this fact: Things are not as they seem. Evil does not finally win. Ultimately, there is no contest. Jesus completely conquers evil with the sole weapon of his word.
Both the Book of Life and the Books of Works ultimately matter.
Two sets of books are pictured in the final judgment – the Book of Life and the Books of Deeds (20:11-15). The Book of Life is also mentioned in Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, and 21:27. Allusions to the Books of Deeds occur in Matthew 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10. The New Testament includes the theme of judging believers’ works (Matthew 16:27 and Romans 2:6). Both sets of books matter in the judgment. We are ultimately responsible for what we do. We are judged by works. But Scripture also portrays God as responsible for our salvation. We are saved by grace and not by works.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, deliver me from both laziness and self-righteousness. Help me to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, always conscious that it is You who work in me both to do and to will of Your good pleasure. Amen.
Chapters 21 & 22
A New Heaven and a New Earth: The Message of Chapters 21 – 22
The apocalyptic language of heaven inspires joyful and eager anticipation.
Some things are so wonderful, they’re beyond description – or, at least, their wonder cannot be contained in words. Sometimes the only way we can express our wonder and awe is with “negative language.” Negative language describes what something is not, rather than describing what something is. We find examples of “negative language” in the Apocalypse’s descriptions of heaven.
- NO SEA (21:1). The sea represented chaotic power in Genesis 1 and the first beast came out of the sea (13:1).
- NO TEARS, DEATH, SORROW, CRYING, or PAIN (21:4). Everything that robs life of joy is gone forever! No funerals, no grief, no aches, no pains, no medicine, no mourning.
- NO COWARDLY, FAITHLESS, POLLUTED, MURDERERS, FORNICATORS, SORCERERS, IDOLATERS, or LIARS (21:8). Nothing wrecks a place like bad company. But the new heaven and earth will contain only good company!
- NO TEMPLE (21:22). There will be no need to “go to church.” Why? Because God will be all in all. Ultimately, heaven is heaven because heaven is God’s home. The New Testament doesn’t focus on “going to heaven” as much as “being with Christ” (Philippians 1:23; John 14:1-4; 17:24).
- NO SUN, MOON, or NIGHT (21:23; 22:5). God is the light. God’s presence banishes night and all its anxieties.
- NO CLOSED GATES (21:25). The entrance into the city is open to all who would enter. Peace and security reign.
- NO CURSE (22:3). The curse of Genesis 3:1-6 is lifted! These wonderful negatives remind us that the new heaven and earth is a place without sin. Our hope is not just that we will see glory around us. The Apostle Paul says that God’s glory will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). Our souls will be made perfect in holiness (Hebrews 12:23). The “negatives of heaven” inspire joyful and eager anticipation. This hope can purify us now (1 John 3:3).
God will not scrap the earth, but will restore & transform it.
The heavenly city comes down (21:2, 10). Does the heavenly city come down twice (21:2, 10)? The grammar is ambiguously stated. Past or present tense? Is it possible that the heavenly city, even now, is in the process of being realized? Could it be that the heavenly city is in a perpetual state of descending until the ultimate and final consummation?
Heaven is not remote. “Earth is crammed with heaven” (Elizabeth Browning). Ultimately, there will be a new earth. The earth will be redeemed. Romans 8:23 speaks of “the restoration of all things.” Grace does not destroy nature. Grace restores nature. God doesn’t let Satan get the final victory. Even the earth will be restored! The elements will be destroyed by fire (2 Peter 3:10), but this apocalyptic transformation doesn’t necessarily mean that the new earth will be completely new in origin with no connection to the old. Could it be that the “new earth” will be like the body of a glorified believer (1 Corinthian 15)? Truly new and transformed, yet retaining the basic identity? God will not scrap the earth, but will restore and transform it. In a real sense, we don’t need to say “goodbye” to the best aspects of this marvelous planet. We don’t need to say a total “farewell” to those beautiful and special places we cherish. Yes, they will be transformed by apocalyptic fire, but couldn’t this transformation be a glorious restoration? C.S. Lewis captured this truth in the finale of The Chronicles of Narnia: “Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream” (The Last Battle, HarperCollins, pages 194-195).
Heaven is the perfect community.
Heaven is pictured as a city (Greek polis). This word is used twelve times in Revelation 21-22 (21:2, 10, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 23; 22:14, 19). A city is the ultimate expression of community. People live in close proximity and exist in a web of interdependence. The biblical track record of cities is not good. The first city was built by Cain, a murderer. Babel was a disaster. Sodom and Gomorrah typified the worst in city life. Cities often bring out the worst in people, because people have conflicting interests. But the new heaven and new earth will be marvelously transformed. There will be no sin, no selfish ambition or pettiness. Therefore, the picture of heaven as a city carries a beautiful message: Heaven is the perfect community.
Nothing good on earth will be truly lost in heaven.
The visions of heaven in Revelation 21-22 are breathtaking and glorious. All suffering is gone. It is unthinkable that there could be anything disappointing about heaven. Some people envision heaven as a place of boredom and blandness, but Scripture never points in that direction. (Notice that heaven is pictured as an active place of service and reigning – 22:3-5.)
One common concern is, “Will I know other people in heaven?” Moses and Elijah were identifiable at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:4). The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15) indicated that there is continuity between the present body and the future, glorified body. Another concern is, “What about my believing spouse?” Didn’t Jesus say that there will be no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:30)? Actually, Jesus never said there will be no marriage in heaven. Revelation pictures the ultimate marriage in heaven – the marriage between the Lamb and his bride, the Church. Marriage here on earth is a shadow of this ultimate reality (Ephesians 5:31-32). A happily married husband and wife who follow Christ may wonder, “Won’t we be disappointed in heaven without the delights of our physical relationship and intimacy?” C.S. Lewis compares this to a boy who, after being told by his parents that the sexual act is the highest bodily pleasure, asks if you eat chocolate at the same time. After receiving the answer, “No,” the boy thinks sexuality is unappealing. But the parents understand that lovers don’t think about chocolate because something far better enraptures them. This “heavenly marriage” does not mean that believing spouses will not have any relationship in heaven.
Human relationships don’t end in heaven, although they will be gloriously transformed. Two people can be business partners and friends. When they retire and are no longer “partners,” they can still be friends. It’s even possible that they become better friends than before. Believers will know each other more in heaven, not less. Believing spouses will be nearer and dearer to each other - then more than ever, but in a new and transformed way. While we may not understand the parameters of future relationships in heaven, we can be confident that those relationships will be better, not worse. Nothing good on earth will be lost in heaven … it will only be better!
Thinking about heaven is not escapist.
Is thinking about heaven “pie-in-the-sky” escapism? Philosopher Peter Kreeft responded to this charge by pointing to a deeper question: “The first and simplest answer to the charge that belief in heaven is escapism is that the first question is not whether it is escapist but whether it is true. . . . ‘There is a tunnel under this prison’ may be an escapist idea, but it may also be true (Heaven: the Heart’s Deepest Longing, page 164). “Otherworldliness is escapism only if there is no other world. If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism” (Kreeft, 168).
The prophetic visions of Revelation are intended to affect us NOW.
The last chapter of Revelation includes a “liturgical dialog.” The Church, bound to God by the Holy Spirit, invites Christ to “come” (22:17). Christ answers in 22:20: “Yes, I am coming soon.” The Bride then responds, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20). Revelation is intended to stir our desire for heaven, our true home. It is also a book that is to be “put into practice” right now (1:3). How do we keep the words of this prophecy? Not by speculating about future dates and timetables. Not by treating the Apocalypse like a secret code. Rather we recognize that the prophetic visions of Revelation are intended to affect us right now by waking us up to reality (1:3; 22:17).
The end described in Revelation is really a glorious beginning.
The last chapter of Revelation uses words that speak of eternity: “They will reign forever and ever” (22:5). Jesus himself is called the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (22:13). The end described in Revelation is really a glorious beginning. The future has invaded the present and believers live in glorious hope. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (22:20).
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 210-211).
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, I thank you that You will be praised for all eternity in the glorious, love-filled, joy-saturated, and everlasting Kingdom. Have mercy on me and lead me in the way of this glorious salvation. Amen.