The Chronology of Revelation - Chapters 21 and 22 - Part 2
Alan Summers, Mayfield, Scotland
In chapter 21 verses 1 to 5, a city called the New Jerusalem descends from God’s presence.
‘I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’, Rev. 21. 2.
This city descends from God’s eternal dwelling place. The city should be understood as a literal city. The city is not a metaphor. The metaphor in this verse is the comparison of the city to a bride. The metaphor compares the beauty and freshness of a bride with the new Jerusalem.
In the section commencing at verse 10, there is further description of a city descending. According to those who consider that John goes back in time from the eternal state to the Millennium, this describes a different Jerusalem which also comes down from heaven. I consider that this is an unlikely interpretation. In all other passages of scripture, Jerusalem in the Millennium is an earthly city. There is no hint that it has a twin city bearing the same name. A better way of reading this section is to understand verses 9 to 27 as a recapitulation. This literary technique is used in a number of places in Revelation. It enables the writer to introduce a subject and then return to it in more detail. Thus viewed, John, having described the descent of the city, breaks off the narrative in verses 5 to 8, and then returns to provide greater detail of the vision of the city. This is the view I favour and it explains why there are two descriptions of the new Jerusalem descending.
Those who favour the view that chapter 21 verse 9 to chapter 22 verse 5 describes the Millennium do not accept this. In their view these are two descents. They accept that a city called Jerusalem descends from heaven at the start of the eternal state, but assert that there is a prior descent at the start of the Millennium. They acknowledge that there is already a Jerusalem on earth at the start of the Millennium, a city that has survived the ravages of the tribulation. It would be absurd to have two cities of the same name on earth simultaneously. To avoid this anomaly, it is argued that the second Jerusalem descends but does not alight on the earth. It is in orbit over the earth. John certainly describes the city ‘coming down’ or ‘descending’ out of heaven, 21. 2, 10. But John states that it ‘lies foursquare’. If it is in orbit over earth, on what does it lie? It is hard to see that it could be lying on anything if it is in orbit over the earth. Surely the better way of interpreting this section is that it comes from heaven and lies on the earth? It is sometimes said that the saints of the church age populate this heavenly city and rule over the earth. This is based on Revelation chapter 5 verse 10, which states, ‘And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth’. Darby translates this as ‘they shall reign over the earth’. This is interpreted to mean that they reign in the city above the earth. There is an abundance of problems with this interpretation. Most translations retain the KJV reading ‘on the earth’. Even if the word epi is translated ‘over’, it is unlikely to have a physical connotation. The queen reigns over the United Kingdom and Commonwealth but no one would suggest that this means that Buckingham Palace hovers over the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
Other factors should be noted. First, the Jerusalem in chapter 21 verse 9 to chapter 22 verse 5 is located in a realm where the curse has been banished and all are saved, 22. 3; 21. 27. This is consistent with the state of perfection in the eternal state. It does not fit with what we know of the Millennium. The Bible tells us man remains sinful in the Millennium and rises to rebel against Christ, 20. 7-9.
Second, the city in chapter 21 verse 9 to chapter 22 verse 5 has no need of natural light, 21. 23. But in the Millennium the sun and moon continue to shine and the earth is governed by the seasons of the year, Isa. 30. 26; Zech. 14. 8. This indicates that chapter 21 verse 9 to chapter 22 verse 5 is the eternal state and not the Millennium.
Third, this section of verses describes a new earth that no longer needs a temple, but in the Millennium a temple will be built beside Jerusalem and will be supported by a priesthood and a system of sacrifice, Ezek. 40. 2; 48. 8, 10; Isa. 2. 2. This indicates that the verses relate to the eternal state and not the Millennium.
Finally, the vast dimensions of the new city make a lot more sense in the context of a new earth unconstrained by the limitations of the old creation, 21. 16. The city measures twelve thousand stadia (approx. 1,500 miles square; the distance between London and Athens). If we propose to defend the literal ‘one thousand years’ in chapter 20 verses 2 to 7, we should be consistent and interpret the twelve thousand stadia as a literal measurement. If the text purports to give the dimensions of the city that is how the text should be understood. It is true that numerals in Revelation have, at times, a figurative aspect, e.g., 666, in chapter 13 verse 18, but these numbers purport to be dimensions not symbols.
Are there any problems with the interpretation that treats the final section of Revelation as a description of the eternal state? There are a few! Chapter 21 verse 9 to chapter 22 verse 5 describes a tree whose leaves provide ‘healing’, v. 2. This might be thought inconsistent with the idea that in the eternal state all will be perfection. If sin has been banished there can be no risk of illness or injury and, if that be so, there is no need for ‘healing’. This is a fair point. But it suffers from some flaws. It should be remembered that this tree is the ‘tree of life’, not the trees that line the Millennial river, v. 2; Ezek. 47. 12. It first appears in the Garden of Eden and unlike the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was available to our first parents to eat. Earlier in Revelation the saints were promised the right to eat from ‘the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God’, 2. 7. So when we seek the meaning of ‘healing’ we should remember that the tree was not designed to cure disease or illnesses. It was in the Garden before disease and illness entered in, Gen. 3. 22, 24. If it was removed by God after the Fall because of the risk that unsaved men and women would eat and live forever, it is hard to understand why God would make it available in the Millennium when man is still fallen. But if it is reintroduced in the eternal state, the risk is absent. The word ‘healing’ therefore should be understood in the sense that the leaves supply and enhance life.
It is also argued that this section cannot refer to the eternal state because it refers to ‘kings’ and ‘nations’. It is argued that in the eternal state there are no kings and that the only authority that exists is God’s. It is also argued that all ethnic differences are eradicated and hence there can be no nations. My difficulty with this argument is that it assumes a knowledge of the eternal state and its organization that we do not have. During the Millennium, rule is concentrated in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, but this does not mean that there are no kings on the earth. The fact that ultimate authority is in the hands of Christ does not prevent lesser rulers exercising delegated authority. If that is so I do not see why the fact that power is concentrated in the hand of the Father in the eternal state means that no one else can exercise delegated authority in the city or on the new earth. It is sometimes pointed out that the Lamb and the Bride are not mentioned in chapter 21 verses 1 to 5, and that God alone is mentioned. By contrast, the Lamb and Bride are mentioned in the section of verses we are considering. It is said that this is consistent with the inference that in the eternal state the Lord Jesus has ceded authority to the Father and the Church is no longer prominent. This is certainly an interesting argument, but the absence of a reference to Christ and the Church may not signify very much given the brevity of the section. Had the section been longer this argument would have more force.
The conclusion of the article will not satisfy everyone, but it does seem to me that, on balance, it is better to interpret the closing chapters of Revelation as a description of the realization of God’s purpose rather than a phase of history that, although in many respects is glorious, ends with man proving once more that he is antagonistic to God. It is better to read these chapters as an account of the eternal state with God enthroned and righteousness reigning.