The section of Revelation provided by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (21:10, 22–22:5) is the final vision from a long sequences of visions, in which the writer, carried “in the spirit” to “a great, high mountain”, sees “the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (22:10).
The top of a mountain is significant in biblical narratives; we only need to remember Moses atop Mount Sinai, receiving the commandments from God (Exod 19:1–25) and viewing the promised land, which he would not himself enter (Deut 34:1–4); and Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, teaching his disciples (Matt 5:1–7:28), being transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:1–8), and giving his last instructions to his followers before departing from them (Matt 18:16–20).
Visions in Scripture
There are many accounts of visions being seen by people on earth, as God reveals guidance to them; noteworthy are the visions of Abraham (Gen 18:1–16), Moses (Exod 3:1–6), Balaam and his donkey (Num 22:22–35), Joshua (Josh 5:13–15), Eli (1 Sam 3:2–18), and the visions of various prophets (Isa 6:1–13; Ezek 2:1–10; Ezek 40:1–44:31; Dan 7:1–14; Dan 8:1–14; Amos 7:1–9; Amos 8:1–14; Zech chapters 1–6).
In early chapters of the Gospels, visions experienced by key figures shape the course of the story—Zechariah (Luke 1:8–20), Mary (Luke 1:26–38), shepherds (Luke 2:8–14), and Joseph (Matt 1:19–21; 2:13; 2:19–20). Paul experienced “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 12:1–7a); according Luke’s account of the journey he took towards Damascus, it was the visions to both Ananias and to Paul himself (Acts 9:10–12) that brought Paul into the community of believers, in a life-transforming moment.
However, the most notable vision is surely that experienced by Peter, in Joppa: “he saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’” (Acts 10:11–13). This vision not only changes Peter’s understanding of things; it sets forth the rationale for the fundamental nature of the movement founded by Jesus, as an inclusive community of Jews and Gentiles.
Visions in Revelation 19–22
The vision that the author of Revelation sees is part of an extended sequence of visions which are introduced by the same phrase that is used in Acts: “then I saw heaven opened” (19:11; cf. Acts 10:11). God’s opening of the heavens is recognised by the psalmist (Ps 78:23) as the means by which manna was provided in the wilderness; and perhaps this resonance is picked up in the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, when Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10 and parallels). God tears open the heavens to bless and to commission.
More pertinent, however, is the statement by Isaiah, in an oracle describing incredible devastation wrought in divine judgement over Israel, when “the earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled … the earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth [for] the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants” (Isa 24:3–4). The prophet declares that “the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble; the earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken” Isa 24:18–19). This is a fearsome rending apart of the heavens!
So, too, in Revelation, where the opening of the heavens (19:1) reveals a series of seven visions. There is a vision of an intense, violent battle (19:11–21), a vision of the binding of a dragon and “the first resurrection” (20:1–6), and two visions of judgement (20:7–10, 11–15); followed by a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1–8), a vision of “the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:9–27), and then the final vision of “the river of the water of life, flowing … through the middle of the street of the city” (22:1–5).
Scriptural resonances in the visions of Revelation 19–22
In the initial vision of a cataclysmic battle, “the beast and the kings of the earth”, along with their armies, are confronted by a fiery, blood-soaked rider on a white horse, with “the armies of heaven” (19:11–16). The description of this particular figure, as is so often the case on this book, draws from biblical imagery (eyes like a flame of fire, sharp sword, rod of iron, treading the winepress). Indeed, each of the visions that follow are themselves thoroughly shaped by biblical language and imagery. As the author looks forward, he draws heavily on the traditions and stories of his own faith, as expressed in the scrolls of Hebrew Scriptures with which he is intimately familiar.
An angel steps forward to issue the call to battle—yet his call is an invitation to “the great supper of God” (19:17). The image of a supper had been utilised by the prophet Isaiah, who saw the final gathering of the nations in terms of a lavish feast (Isa 25:6–10; see also 55:1–5). This time, however, the supper is a feast for cannibals—turning the imagery upside-down, in a manner reminiscent of a grisly oracle uttered by Ezekiel (Ezek 39:17–20).
The beast and his false prophet are thrown alive into a lake of burning sulphur, evoking the punishment visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24–25; Deut 29:23; 3 Macc 2:5; Luke 17:28–30). The armies of the kings of the earth are slain by the sword, and Satan is cast into a locked pit for one thousand years (19:17–20:6). This recalls an oracle delivered by Isaiah, in which he declared that God, in judgement, would imprison “the host of heaven and the kings of the earth” (Isa 24:21–22).
But for a thousand years? The Psalmist says that “a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Ps 90:4), and a late New Testament book affirms that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8); however, we should note that the period of one thousand years is nowhere associated with divine punishment elsewhere in biblical texts.
After the release of Satan, one further battle takes place, against “the nations … Gog and Magog” (20:8). 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), and 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 closing scenes this provide assurance of God’s providential care of the people of Israel, and perhaps even of the whole earth. Indeed, the familiar patterns of this life, as we know it—night and day, light and dark, even life and death—will be transcended in this new order of reality. Written for a people in the midst of oppressive persecution, this glorious vision and triumphant conclusion provides assurance, reinforcing their faith with hope and certainty.
So it is no wonder, then, that the prayer of those who first heard these visions proclaimed to them, is simply: “Come” (22:17, 20). As we know, that coming was not, as was hoped for, “soon” (22:7, 12, 20). How we now apply these visionary words to our own times is the challenge that rests with us!
This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)