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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – What John Heard (21:3-8)
What John Heard (21:3-8)

If there is one speech that captures in a nutshell the meaning of the entire book of Revelation, this is it. John hears a loud voice from the throne announcing (in the third person) the significance of what he has just seen (vv. 3-4). Then he who was seated on the throne continues, speaking in the first person (vv. 5-8). The message is one, in spite of the changing voices. The voice from the throne begins by calling John's attention to the vision he has just seen: Now the dwelling of God is with men (that is, with humankind). This means that "he will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (v. 3 NRSV). As the speaker shifts from present to future tense, we get the impression that John no longer stands at the scene of the last judgment, fastforwarded into the future with a new sky and a new earth, but back in his own time, on Patmos on the Lord's Day (as in 1:9-10).

The message is intended for him and the seven congregations in their day, and equally for us today. Its future-oriented language is the language of God's ancient covenant with the Jewish people. God told Moses to tell Israel, "I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people" (Lev 26:11-12). Ezekiel wrote, "I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people" (Ezek 37:26-27). Ezekiel added, "Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever" (v. 28), suggesting that God's covenant with Israel signified hope for the Gentiles as well. Zechariah went a step further: "Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people" (Zech 2:11; compare Is 56:7). Yet nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are the Gentiles drawn fully into God's covenant with Israel.

This changes in the New Testament, where Paul reminds a Gentile congregation at Corinth: "For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said, `I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people'" (2 Cor 6:16). Similarly in Revelation the ancient covenant promises are for "his peoples," not simply the people of Israel (Bauckham 1993:137; see 5:9; 7:9). John has not forgotten that Jerusalem is a Jewish city, but he sees it here as representing all the cities and all the people of the world. Yet John is no universalist. His point is not that all humans will be saved, for he has already seen "the inhabitants of the earth" thrown into the lake of fire. The bride, or new Jerusalem, is simply his metaphor for those who are redeemed. They are the new humanity. The destiny of others is "the second death" (20:14), but for this group there is no more death (v. 4). The voice from the throne echoes the imagery of Isaiah 25:6-8: "On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich foods for all peoples . . . On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth."

When the voice from the throne announces, There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (v. 4), it recalls an earlier voice. The poignant phrase no more (Greek ouk . . eti) echoes the refrain of the angel who pronounced doom on Babylon (18:21-23), but with a glorious difference. There the things that would be "no more" were good things like music, trade, "the sound of a millstone," "the light of a lamp," "the voice of bridegroom and bride" (18:22-23). Here they are sad things like death, mourning, crying and pain (compare "no longer will there be any curse," 22:3, and "no more night," 22:5). In the earlier vision, all the joys of life sank with Babylon like a millstone into the sea (18:21); now the sea itself, and with it death, mourning, crying and pain, is no more (v. 4).

The transition from the old order of things have passed away (v. 4) to I am making everything new (v. 5) corresponds to a change in speaker. Instead of a loud voice from the throne (vv. 3-4), we now hear from the one who was seated on the throne (vv. 5-8). This is one of only two places in the entire book where God speaks personally and directly (Aune 1983:280), the other being 1:8, "`I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, `who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.'" Here too God identifies himself with I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End (v. 6) and here too gives the impression of speaking to John in his own time and immediate situation on the island of Patmos.

The good news at the heart of the book of Revelation is the announcement I am making everything new (v. 5). This is not something God does only at the end of time, but something going on already in the present age, whether in the seven congregations to which John wrote or in our troubled world today. It is a trustworthy and true pronouncement, so crucial to the message of the book that John is immediately commanded, Write this down (v. 5). A similar conviction lies at the root of Paul's bold affirmation that "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new" (2 Cor 5:17 NRSV). Whether John was familiar with Paul, or whether Paul was simply using an expression already common among early Christians, it was not a huge step to conclude that a God who remakes individuals is at work remaking the world as well. In the mind of God, if not yet in human experience, it is done (v. 6).

The voice continues to speak to John and his readers in their own time. The divine self-identification, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, combined with a promise (or promises) recalls several of Jesus' sayings in the Gospel of John, for example, John 6:35 ("I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty"), 8:12 ("I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life") and 11:25-26 ("I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die"). Here the speaker seems to be God rather than Jesus, although at this point the two have become virtually interchangeable (see 22:13, where Jesus identifies himself as "the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End"). Two promises are attached to the self-identification. First, to the thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life (v. 6; compare John 4:14; 6:35; 7:37-38). Second, anyone who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son (v. 7; compare the repeated promises in the seven messages of chapters 2-3 to those who "overcome").

These promises should be read as invitations to all who hear John's long letter read in the congregations of Asia. John assumes there will be some outsiders or inquirers sitting in on Christian worship assemblies (1 Cor 14:23-25). They are the thirsty who are urged to drink of the water of life that is the Christian message. As for the believers in the assembly, their responsibility is to "hear" and "take to heart what is written" (1:3), and above all to "overcome" in the face of ridicule, social pressure and impending persecution, and so become God's son, or child. As we have seen (in connection with 1:6), knowing God as Father in the book of Revelation is more of a promise for the future than a present experience, even for those who "overcome." For the present, God is Jesus' Father, not ours, and even in this future setting the promise to God's son or child is, I will be his God, not his "Father."

Last comes a warning to all who reject such invitations, whether they call themselves Christians or not. The grim ending is a list of those whose place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death (v. 8; compare 20:14-15). Most of the classes of people there come as no surprise: the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters. They stand outside and are hostile to the Christian communities to which John is writing. But some are more surprising. The reference at the beginning of the list to the cowardly (Greek deiloi) and the unbelieving (Greek apistoi, literally "the faithless") recalls Jesus' rebukes to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid?" (literally, "Why are you such cowards?"). "Do you still have no faith?" (Mk 4:40; compare Mt 8:26).

Such terms seem to refer not to those outside the Christian movement but to those within the seven congregations who are cowards, unwilling to stand firm in the face of trouble and testing. They are not so much "unbelievers" as unfaithful Christians (compare Rev 2:10, "Be faithful, even to the point of death"; 17:14, "his called, chosen and faithful followers"). Similarly at the end of the list there is emphasis on all liars, recalling Gentile Christians who "claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars" (3:9; compare 2:9) and those "who claim to be apostles but are not" and are similarly found to be "false," or liars (2:2; 14:5; 22:15). If the purpose of these lies was to avoid persecution, then the cowardly and liars are the same. Never is it assumed anywhere in the Revelation that all those in the Christian congregations are necessarily "overcomers." Some inside as well as outside the church are destined for the second death. This sobering conclusion to God's voice from the throne leaves it to us to decide where we wish to stand at the last judgment.

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