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John's vision is of a new heaven and a new earth (v. 1), reminding him that the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. John had seen the first heaven and the first earth "pass away" just five verses earlier: "Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them" (20:11). As we have already observed, "heaven" and "sky" are the same word in Greek. The NIV, which translated that word appropriately as "sky" in 20:11, has here obscured the similarity between the two passages by translating it as "heaven." John's point is that the "earth and sky" that disappeared (20:11) are now replaced with "a new sky" and "a new earth," in other words, a new world—a whole new human environment.
Something is different, however: there was no longer any sea (v. 1). Nothing was said in the preceding section about the sea disappearing with the sky and the earth. The sea remained and, with death and Hades, "gave up the dead" that were in it (20:13). As soon as the dead were judged, death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire (20:14). But what about the sea?
Because it would be incongruous to have the sea thrown into the lake of fire, John contents himself with the observation that there was no longer any sea. The sea, like Hades, was to him a realm of death. Millions of dead are buried at sea, just as millions are buried in the earth. John was told of a beast coming out of the Abyss, or bottomless pit (11:7), but what he himself later saw was the beast coming out of the sea (13:1). From his perspective the sea, the Abyss and Hades all amount to much the same thing. What is more natural for a man imprisoned on a lonely island than to view the waters separating him from his companions on the mainland as waters of death? His perception that there was no longer any sea is simply another way of saying that in the new creation there is no more death (v. 4). It is possible, in fact, by ignoring the chapter divisions, to draw 21:1 into the orbit of the preceding chapter, as the concluding element in a four-part chiastic structure:
(a) "the sea gave up the dead that were it"
(b) "death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them"
(b') "death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire"
(a') "there was no longer any sea"
John's new creation, then, consists of a new sky and a new earth, without the sea and what the sea represents. Above all it consists of the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (v. 2). John has no interest in the new sky and new earth for their own sake. They merely set the stage for the real center of his attention: the new Jerusalem (see 21:9—22:5). His priorities are the same as Isaiah's, from whom he draws his imagery:
Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more." (Is 65:17-19)
The new Jerusalem is prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (v. 2). This city is also personified as a woman, not a prostitute like evil Babylon, but a pure and holy bride. The bride was mentioned in passing once before (19:7-8), when she represented "the saints," or people of God, the redeemed "virgins" who followed the Lamb wherever he went (14:4-5. They have now ruled with him on earth for a thousand years (20:4-6). The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, is not so much a place as a people (Gundry 1987:254-64), specifically a people meeting their God, as John is about to learn from two heavenly voices.