By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Powerful images from the Bible’s closing chapters, Revelation 21-22, are featured in these ongoing weeks of Uprising. We focus here on the entirety of Revelation’s vision of “New Jerusalem,” and will return to John’s Gospel and Acts in coming weeks (painting right: “New Jerusalem” by Diane Fairfield).
No New Testament text reverberates more with Hebrew Scripture than Revelation. Almost every image in John of Patmos’ visionary description of New Jerusalem has a scriptural antecedent. The “new heaven and new earth” which he proclaims is indeed new, but also the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of God’s people throughout the ages.
Far from an image of afterlife, New Jerusalem is said to be “coming down out of heaven from God…” (Rev 21.2). It is not about “us” going “there,” but about “there” coming here, just as we hear in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” In every respect, the “holy city” is the mirror opposite of the “great city,” here known also as “Babylon,” whose roots also reach deeply into Hebrew Scripture (e.g., Gen 10.12; Jer 22.8; Jonah 1.2; 3.2; 4.11). But one key principle connects all the contrasting images: Babylon’s luxurious abundance is available only for the wealthy elite who can afford to buy it, whereas the wealth and splendor of New Jerusalem is God’s gift for any and all who choose to “enter” the “holy city.”
For example, we hear that as fallen, condemned Babylon burns, three groups mourn her passing: the “kings of the earth” who “lived in luxury with her” (18.9), the “merchants of the earth…since no one buys their cargo anymore” (18.11) and the “shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea” who “grew rich by her wealth” (18.17-19). In other words, the elite are crushed by the collapse of the global economy.
On the other hand, “you saints and apostles and prophets” are called to “rejoice over her” as she burns, since “her” destruction is God’s gift of judgment (18.20). In the opposite way, all peoples are invited into the always-open gates of New Jerusalem (21.24-26). Those “outside” choose to be outside, since they hold on to the religion of empire and its practices of murder, idolatry, and “the lie” (21.27; 22.15).
The startling imagery of golden streets and bejeweled walls explodes the all-too-common notion among Christians that the life of faith requires ascetic denial, rejection of “worldliness” and enjoyment. God’s intention from the beginning has been for humanity to receive our lives on this abundant, blue-green pearl as the gift that it is, rather than as some kind of waiting room anticipating our “real” home in the afterlife. How much damage has been done by this radical displacement of humanity’s home from earth to the sky!
And not only are humans truly at home on the abundant earth, so is God. In imperial religion, the chief divinity is inevitably enshrined in an urban temple, just as the Jerusalem priestly and royal elite sought to do with YHWH. But John’s vision offers this astounding alternative:
Behold! God’s tent [Gk, skēnē] with humanity! And God will tent [Gk, skēnōsei] with them as their God and they will be God’s peoples and God’s own self will be with them! (Rev 21.3).
This is the “glory” of which the Johannine Jesus speaks this week (John 13.31-32) as it echoes into Revelation (Rev 21.11, 23-26). It is the combined expression of God’s gracious provision, presence and engagement found at the heart of human life together.
One further frequent misreading of John’s vision also calls for correction. We so often envision the “reign of God” as a human building project, calling us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. But the great irony is that it is precisely “human building projects” that are condemned throughout the religion of creation strand of biblical narrative, from Cain’s city, Enoch, to the city and tower of Babel, to Babylon itself. What is sometimes so difficult for us to trust is that God’s reign is pure gift. We aren’t to “build” it. It is already “here,” if we simply choose to “see” and to trust. What we are called to do is to clear the rubble of Babylon away, so that we all can live into the beauty of God’s realm . As David Byrne put it:
There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it.
We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it.
There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers
you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it.
This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it.
“(Nothing but) Flowers,” by David Byrne, © 1988 EMI Records, Ltd.
As we continue to celebrate this season in which God has broken the shackles of death forever (Rev 21.4), may we joyously keep on the Way that leads out of the imperial prison and into the holy freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8.21).