Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8
Posted by R. Fowler White
The visions of Rev 20:11–21:8 are the last set of visions that we’ll examine in the light of the themes of “battle and building.” Starting off, let’s notice why we should treat the vision sequence in 20:11–21:8 as a unit.
1. The unified picture in 20:11–21:8. Following the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11b (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we’re told in 20:12-13 (cf. 11:18) that those once dead were standing (20:12), having been released from their burial sites for judgment (20:13-14a). Introduced after the present heavens and earth disappear in 20:11b, the woe of the unrighteous, whose names were not in the book of life, is underlined in both 20:15 and 21:8. Introduced after the new heavens and earth appear in 21:1a, the weal of the righteous, whose names were in the book of life (21:27; 3:12), is highlighted in 21:2-7. Seeing, then, both the resurrection and the judgment of all in 20:11–21:8, the visions form a unified picture of the heavenly court’s final session in which the Divine Judge resurrects and judges all the dead. With that scene in mind, we can summarize how the combat and construction themes help us understand what’s going on in 20:11–21:8.
2. Victory over our last enemy. First, the emptying of all burial sites (natural or supernatural) in 20:13 signals the final overthrow of bodily death. Both the unrighteous and the righteous share in that victory. Yet for the unrighteous, that victory is no victory at all because it’s as empty as their grave: ironically, it issues in a death worse than bodily death. Having no share in the first resurrection (20:5), they emerge from their tombs only to be thrown into the lake of fire where the second death will forever have power over them (20:15; 21:8). By contrast, for the righteous, their victory over bodily death is as full as it is final. Full because, having taken part in the first resurrection, the second death has no power over them; final because they will abide forever in their eternal home with their God in the new creation, never to suffer death again (21:4). Only the righteous, then, will truly have title to proclaim, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? (1 Cor 15:54b-55a).
3. Our final residence with our God is a temple. Second, with the victory theme in clear view, the building theme is expected to shine through in the consequences that follow not only death’s defeat in 20:11-15 but the defeat of the Gog-Magog enemies in 20:7-10. The pattern we saw in 20:1-6 appears again in 20:7–21:8, and the pattern in 20:7–21:8 parallels the pattern in Ezek 38-48. The OT prophet had revealed God’s establishment of the new temple-city in the new paradisal land following His defeat of Gog-Magog. We already know that when the saints shared in the victory of the second death, their first resurrection announced their spiritual re-formation as the kingdom and beloved city (20:4, 6, 9). So, when we reach 21:1ff., we know that the saints have now shared in the victory over bodily death and that the promise Christ made in 3:12 is now to be fulfilled. He had said of the victorious saint that at His coming (cf. 3:11) I shall make him a pillar in the temple of my God … and I shall write upon him … the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven. So, when the saints share in the victory over bodily death, the holy city image reappears in 21:2, 10. In fact, John describes the new city in 21:3 as the dwelling place (i.e., tabernacle) of God. Seeing these images side by side, we recognize that the saints’ presentation as the city-tabernacle in 21:2-3 (cf. 21:9-10) is the building episode that we expected to follow the Divine Warrior’s victory over His last enemy. Presumably, then, the new Jerusalem that appears in chap. 21 after Christ’s return in 20:9-11 is the temple-city that He promised to build using his saints as living stones, indeed, stones resurrected from physical death! Even the eternal heavens and earth should also be understood in the light of the temple building theme since John calls attention to the absence of all that is unclean from that final residence of God and His people (21:27; cf. holy, 21:3). All in all, then, not only do the saints, as living temple stones, make the lasting city holy (21:3), but the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (21:22). Everything about the final residence is temple, a holy house built to the glory of God with man!
4. Conclusion. As we reflect on the contents of the visions in Rev 20:11–21:8, the “battle, then building” themes help us to see that the (second) resurrection constitutes the Divine Judge’s victory over death, while the saints’ resurrection and the creation’s restoration constitute the twofold building project that follows the victory over humanity’s last enemy, death. In all of this, it’s not hard to see that John has framed the Apostles’ teaching about Christ’s redemptive work at His return so that it conforms to the theology of “victory, then house building.” What is more, we see how much of a debt John owed to his OT heritage, a heritage that he embraced no doubt to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power both to triumph over His and our enemies and to establish His holy habitation with His holy people.