1. Renewing Heaven and Earth
God’s covenant with His people embraces heaven and earth. It structures our relationship with God and with all of His creation. It shapes our worship, our dominion, and our service. Any restructuring of that covenant must, therefore, involve a restructuring of the whole world and our relationship to it.2
Throughout the Old Testament God renewed His covenant again and again, each time altering in some measure its outward forms and advancing them in glory.3 Altar became tabernacle, and tabernacle, temple. A single family gave way to twelve tribes, and those tribes to the Davidic kingdom. Each covenant renewal (or new covenant) produced, in some sense, a renewed heaven and earth. But the forms of these earlier covenants were in many ways typical and temporary: They pointed beyond themselves to Jesus Christ and to the definitively new heaven and earth that God would create through Him.
Jesus Christ is God’s covenant made flesh (Is. 42:6; 49:8). He is God’s Tabernacle and Temple (Jn. 1:14; 2:19-22). He is High Priest and Sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-28). He is the Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), our Surety and Mediator (Heb. 7:22; 12:24). In Him the covenant died and rose again, transfigured (Eph. 2:13-22; Col. 2:10-17). In Him the world was reborn.
For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of the cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven. (Col. 1:19-20)
But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. (Eph. 2:13-18)
The heavens and earth of the older covenants have passed away (Ac. 2:14-21; Rev. 6:12-14).4 Christ has fulfilled the types, rent the temple veil, and opened a new and living way into the presence of God (Heb. 10:1-22). He has ascended to the throne of heaven and claimed the whole universe as His own (Eph. 1:20-23; Mt. 28:18-20). He has given us His Spirit (Ac. 2:33, 38) and made us heirs of all things (1 Cor. 3:21-22; Rom. 8:17, 28). He is in us, and we are in Him (Eph. 1; Jn. 14-15), and we are enthroned in heavenly places with Christ (Eph. 2:6).
This is exactly what John sees in Revelation 21 and 22. His new heaven and earth are the new creation that is ours in Jesus Christ. Though its fulness lies beyond the Second Coming and the Resurrection (Rom. 8:18-23), its reality is here, now.5 And so Paul can write:
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Cor. 5:17)
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Gal. 6:15-16)
Paul begins with the new man, John with the new world. But the message is the same; and that message is the gospel.
The New Jerusalem
At the center of the new world John sees the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. She is “the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife” (Rev. 21:9). That is, she is the church of Jesus Christ, the body of elect people for whom He died (Eph. 5:25). And though the fulness of her glory lies beyond history, she is already a heavenly community and the living temple of God. The writer of Hebrews says much the same thing:
But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. (Heb. 12:22-24)
Note the present tense: “Ye are come….” The New Jerusalem is a present reality. Compare Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
There is, then, much more to the church than meets the eye. And so we walk by faith.
Surveying the City
John sees the Holy City descending from heaven (Rev. 21:2). She is born from above, a product of divine grace. In Christ she is already enthroned in heavenly places (Eph. 2:4-7). Thus, Paul calls her the “Jerusalem which is above” (Gal. 4:26).6 She is God’s tabernacle with men (Rev 21:3). God and the Lamb are within her: They are her Temple (Rev. 21:22). She shines with the glory of God (Rev. 21:11). Because Christ is in her, she is the light of the world (Mt. 5:14-16). God’s people in their witness and works have become the glory cloud, the New Covenant Shekinah (Phil. 2:14-16; Mt. 5:16).
The City is surrounded by massive walls and is immune to the enemy’s assaults. God Himself encamps around her, defending her on every side (Zech. 2:5; Is. 26:1). And yet her gates are always open (Rev. 21:25; Is. 26:2). She calls the nations to enter and drink of the gospel waters, and they respond (Rev. 22:17; cf. Is. 55:1-5). The kings of the earth bring her their tribute and treasure. The nations of the saved walk in her light. By her truth, she guides and illumines the political orders, the societies, and the cultures of the whole world (Rev. 21:24-26; Is. 60).
The City is built upon the foundation of the apostles, upon their doctrine and writings (Rev. 21:14; Eph. 2:19-22). The foundation’s stones are colorful and glorious, like the covenant rainbow, and they correspond roughly to the gems on the high priest’s breastplate (Ex. 28:15ff.). The City is a heavenly and priestly people, God’s new Israel (1 Pet. 2:5-10).
The New Jerusalem is immense, 1500 miles on a side and the same in height (Rev. 21:16).7 If she were a physical city of stone and steel, one side could stretch from Dallas to New York and her skyscrapers would brush the fringes of space. If every citizen had a cubic mile all to himself, the City could still hold more than 3 billion people. The point is that God has a lot of people. The number of the elect is astronomical — as many “as the stars in heaven” (Gen. 22:17).
The City is a holy mountain, like Eden (cf. Ezek. 28:13-14), and in its dimensions a perfect cube, a new holy of holies (cf. 1 Kings 6:20). For God is there. The flaming sword and the blood-spattered veil are gone. His servants have open fellowship with Him and free access to His throne (Heb. 4:16; 10:19-22).
From that throne flows a river of life (Rev. 22:1), an image of the Holy Spirit working through the gospel (Jn. 7:37-39; Tit. 3:5-6). The river and the streets of the City are lined with the Tree of Life. Its fruit is sustenance; it leaves are medicine (Rev. 22:2). By virtue of Jesus’ cross, God’s people may eat and drink in His presence.8 Moreover, they are themselves the channel through which Calvary’s healing grace flows to the nations.
Within the Holy City, the curse is gone (Rev. 22:3). Jesus has borne it away (Gal. 3:13-14). We are wholly blessed (Eph. 1:3). Every thorn, every tear, every cross is but another step towards glory (2 Cor. 4:17). All things are for our good (Rom. 8:28-29). Even death is gain (Phil. 1:21). All things are ours (1 Cor. 3:21-23). In Christ, Paradise is truly restored.
The new creation has come. The old world is passing away (1 Jn. 2:17), and Jesus Christ is presently making all things new (Rev. 21:5). It is a great mistake to limit His transforming power to the human heart, or postpone its cosmic impact to eternity. John saw a new world and a new civilization. We need the same vision.
1. Based on ch. 11 and 12 of Greg Uttinger, A Whole New World, The Gospel According to Revelation (1995).
2. Such restructuring may lie largely in the invisible and intangible, though it usually includes alterations in the rites and forms of worship. On the other hand, it may involve something as physically dramatic as the expulsion from Paradise, the Noahic Flood, or the Shekinah glory indwelling the Temple.
3. See James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988) and O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980).
4. Commenting on Hebrews 12:26, John Owen writes, “It is therefore the heavens of Mosaical worship, and Judaical church-state, with the earth of their political state belonging thereunto, that are here intended. These were they that were shaken at the coming of Christ, and so shaken, as shortly after to be removed and taken away, for the introduction of the more heavenly worship of the gospel, and the immovable evangelical church-state. This was the greatest commotion and alteration that God ever made in the heavens and earth.” VII, 366.
5. Calvin writes on Hebrews 2:7: “To make the thing clearer, let us suppose two worlds, — the first the old, corrupted by Adam’s sin; the other, later in time, as renewed by Christ…. It hence now appears that here the world to come is not that which we hope for after the resurrection, but that which began at the beginning of Christ’s kingdom; but it will no doubt have its full accomplishment in our final redemption.”
6. See Luther on Galatians 4:26: “Now this heavenly Jerusalem which is above, is the Church, that is to say, the faithful dispersed throughout the world….”
7. The actual measurements of the City are multiples of 12 and 10. We are to think of her as a new Israel.
8. The cross is called a tree in Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; and 1 Pet. 2:24.