As we saw yesterday the last couple of chapters in the Bible talk about a full restoration and redemption of creation—a creation 2.0. These images point back to the creation narrative. But they indicate more than just a return to Genesis; they indicate an upgrade. The main difference in this scene is the city as opposed to a garden. A garden represents kind of a primordial creation setting before humans have fulfilled the mandate and made something of the creation, fashioning it and organizing it to make things that are useful and beautiful for the flourishing of humanity as God defines it. The city represents the completion of that mandate. As Andy Crouch says, “The city is where culture reaches critical mass—where culture overtakes nature as the dominant reality that human beings must make something of.”
This is why John includes great details about the city in the verses between 21:1-5 which we read yesterday and the beginning of chapter 22 which we will pick up here. He includes details like the walls being made of jasper, the city being pure gold, the foundations adorned with every kind of jewel, the streets of the city are pure, transparent gold. All of these details not only correspond to imagery from the Old and New Testaments but they also indicate exquisite craftsmanship.
In John’s vision this city comes down from heaven as God has made it. The former temple and tabernacle with all the artifacts within were to be crafted by people filled with the Holy Spirit (Ex. 31:1-4). Unlike Babel, which was a human attempt to house God’s presence without God’s instruction and not in God’s timing, this city is a gift from God. Just as God made the garden and gave it to humans as a blessing, here he makes the city and gives humans what they could not achieve on their own. We can drive ourselves mad wrestling with these concepts, but in the end I think we must recognize the story of Scripture is a mysterious mixture of human agency and God’s sovereignty. He tells Israel to build the temple and city knowing they can never perfect it. He tells them to uphold the law knowing they can never fully obey it. He tells the church to bring his kingdom knowing he will need to bring in full. It’s almost as if he knows we need to try it, recognize our incapability, then fully commit to trusting him for his finished work. Here we are again, back at Jesus’ statement, “Come to me you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”
So… I’ve talked a lot and haven’t even started commenting on the text yet so let’s go.
1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
This vision is a clear allusion to the Garden of Eden as well as Ezekiel’s vision of a river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47. In verse 3 we see the curse from Genesis 3 has been broken and creation will no longer resist human effort. Sin will no longer inhibit our work, our relationships and our communion with God. As we saw in chapter 21 there is no temple in the new creation because God’s presence fully inhabits all of it. The inhabitants of the new creation will “see his face”. Remember to see God’s face in our current unholy state certainly means death. His name will be on the inhabitants foreheads. This is a reference to the Shema which they would place on their forehead and on their hand. Also a reference to Israel taking the name of God. They represent him. Now they represent him perfectly. Finally it says they (humans)will reign forever and ever, as they were intended to do in the garden if they would have only followed God’s plan and trusted his way. So the story has come full circle. God has redeemed it all. All of creation is as God intends—in perfect harmony with God, perfect worship to him, perfect work ruling and reigning creation forever.
The story that God has written through his people, Israel and the community of Jesus followers has finally come to the end and it is a happy ending—an ending according to God’s plan in God’s timing and done his way. The humans have finally fulfilled their creation mandate to make something of the world in the form of a city.
Today, just keep teasing out these images in your head. Let them linger. Let them fill you with hope and joy. Have fun in your work today knowing that this is the end which has been ordained.