One of the readings set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday tells of “the new heaven and the new earth”. It’s a vision that stands in the climactic place in the narrative of Revelation, providing the culminating scene to a long series of visions which were seen by the author when he says, “I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” (Rev 4:1)
The new heavens and new earth become evident immediately after Satan is released from prison and thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 21:7-10). This scene includes a final battle, against “the nations… Gog and Magog” (20:8). This passage, like all of this book, depends on earlier biblical passages and reworks multiple biblical allusions into the newly-seen vision.
The account in Revelation 20 is brief, but the distinctive names (Gog and Magog) evoke a reference to an older battle against invaders from the north, described by Ezekiel (Ezek 38:1–39:20). This decisive encounter effected the definitive punishment of God and paved the way for the promised restoration of Israel to the land (Ezek 39:21–29) and the vision of a restored temple (Ezek 40:1–46:24).
The same pattern is followed in Revelation 20. After the battle against Gog and Magog, the devil is also cast into the lake of burning sulphur, all the dead are judged, and Death itself is destroyed (20:7–15). This is followed by the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth, a place devoid of death, bathed in light, sustained by the water of life, a city dazzling with jewels and home to “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (21:1–22:5). The vision appears closely related to the final visions reported at the end of the book of Isaiah (Isa 65:17; 66:22–23).
The imagery used in these verses relates particularly to various sections of the book of Isaiah:
The bride prepared for her husband (21:2) recalls the scene of Isa 61:10.
The wiping away of tears (21:4) evokes the banishing of sorrow (Isa 35:10).
The gift of water from the spring of life (21:6) is suggestive of the way that water functions as an image of life (Isa 35:6–7; 41:18).
The prominent place of the river of the water of life in the new Jerusalem (22:1–2) evokes Isaiah’s link between “the new thing” and “rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:18–21).
Likewise, the description of the spectacular beauty of the city and the careful itemizing of its measurements (21:10–21) imitates the section of Ezekiel where the Temple of his vision is carefully described and numerous measurements are provided (Ezek 40–42).
What is noteworthy, of course, is the pointed declaration that “I saw no temple in the city” (21:22) and the insistence that the divine presence will provide more than enough light for the whole city (21:23–25; 22:5).
Despite the author’s lengthy and intricate entwining with scriptural sources, in this final vision he points beyond the past, to a new form of the future. Yet still, he reaches back before the temple, to the times when the shining light signaled the divine presence (Exod 3:2; 13:21–22; Ps 78:14).
In similar fashion, perhaps the prominence of the tree of life (22:2) is intended to supplant the many trees beside the river in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 47:12) and provide a reminder of the single tree in the creation story (Gen 2:9).
The biblical resonances in the visions recounted in Revelation appear regularly and incessantly throughout the book. The future we hope for can only be understood in terms of what we know in the present, strongly shaped by our experiences in the past, and interpreted in the light of our current situation. The past is foundational in how we view the world and thus what we hope for in the future. The present is dynamically engaged in the process of making sense of what as already occurred and setting up possibilities for what is still yet to come.
The future is ours for the making, now.