[Note: This post is based on an address to a local church that invited me as a guest speaker.]
The first time I came before you we discussed how the first book of the Bible sets up the whole story of humankind’s rebellion and its restoration by Jesus’ death, resurrection and rule.
It was the story of creation, exodus and exile: the creation of a world and of a humanity to rule it for God; an exile from the Garden of Eden; an exodus from the former world into the post-Flood world; Exodus from Egypt and exile from the Promised Land into Babylonian captivity.
Finally Jesus arrives to bring the hope of another Exodus into a New Heavens and a New Earth.
Today I would like to share a perspective about the story of redemption from the very end of the Bible: the book of Revelation.
The first sentence of the book provides a clue to understanding the intent of the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”
This means that it was intended to be understood by those in the seven churches to whom it was addressed. It was intended to help them understand their own times and the hope of the gospel.
They were living in the southern half of Asia Minor, along a Roman mail route. The Roman Empire was beginning to see the Christian faith as a threat to their security. In fact, the reason John was on the Island of Patmos in the first place was because the Romans had exiled him there for being a Christian leader.
John’s letter of revelation addresses the seven churches personally. We know that because Paul had warned the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:17-38 about false teachers who would enter their midst and because he put Timothy in charge in order to root out the heresy, as we read in I Timothy. Through John, Jesus congratulates them on overcoming the false teaching, but chides them for no longer having their “first love.” We assume the other churches understood the individualized messages to them also. Some of the messages contain strongly-worded warnings to repent, while others contain encouragements to remain steadfast in Jesus and His gospel.
What follows the individualized messages to the churches is a strange literary form that was common among Jewish circles at that time: apocalypse. The reader is projected into a strange world of symbolic images that represent the contrast between what is perceived by the senses and the unseen reality that underlies what we believe we are seeing. The contrast is between what is going on in the physical world and what is going on from the perspective of the heavenly realm.
The imagery shifts from a Beast and a Dragon to a Lamb Who Was Slain. It shifts from the throne-room of a mighty immoral human Anti-Christ Emperor to the heavenly throne-room of Almighty God and His Son, Jesus Christ. It shifts from a loud and boisterous False Prophet who shows lying wonders to the true messengers of God, who are depicted like Moses and Elijah – powerful in God, but willingly martyred for Jesus’ sake. It also shifts from the human civilization based in the city called “Babylon the Great” to the New Jerusalem that comes down from above after all the turmoil and the Final Judgment of all humanity.
John’s final order of business in Revelation 21 and 22 is to describe what the angel tells him is “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” What the angel shows him is a city comprised of gold and precious stones that has “people of God” written all over it symbolically.
For instance, the twelve precious stones that adorn the foundations (v. 19) are exact equivalents (at least semantically) to the 12 stones found on the breastplate of Israel’s high priestly garments in Exodus 28:17-21.
The 12 Gates are named after the 12 tribes of Israel (as if the number 12 itself were not the first clue.)
The foundations of the gates are named after the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ.
The city is a cube, just like the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle and Temple.
Each side and its height measure 12,000 stadia, which is exactly the same number as that of each tribe represented in Rev. 7:4-8 (which is another place where what John hears and what he sees are different, yet represent the same thing).
But why represent the people of God as a city?
Because they are being contrasted against the “harlot” who is “drunk on the blood of the saints,” which is the city called “Babylon the Great.”
The game of empire began shortly after the Great Flood of Noah’s day, when Nimrod began his rule in a city named Babel, later renamed Babylon (Gen. 10:8-12), extending it to Akkad and Erech, and later into northern Mesopotamia (later Assyria) with Nineveh, Calneh and Resin.
Genesis 11 gives further illumination about the beginning of empire-building with the incident of the Tower of Babel. The original intent was to prevent the scattering of all people around the world by building a city and a “tower that reaches to heaven.” (God had commanded Noah and his descendents to “multiply and fill the earth,” obviously requiring humans to spread out over its surface.)
God scatters them by confusing the languages. Presumably Nimrod must now go out to attempt to gather them once more into other cities to regain control over at least a significant fraction of the human beings that have not yet moved out of Mesopotamia. Thus is born the idea of Empire. If humanity won’t come to your city-state, make their cities part of your empire.
It is not surprising many of the subsequent world-ruling empires take Babylon (yes, Babel by another name) as a least a regional administrative centre. Alexander the Great actually even moved there and made it his capital until his demise. Its allure was great for centuries.
The Chaldean Empire, based in Babylon, was the first of four great empires described in a vision to Nebuchadnezzar, the first world-ruling emperor. The subsequent empires that ruled the region were the Medo-Persian Empire, the Graeco-Macedonian Empire and the Roman Empire. Each empire is mightier than the one before, but more immoral. The readers would have seen the city of Rome as what John names Babylon the Great, which really represents the human Evil Empire, the ultimate human delusion of bringing humanity under one Emperor.
It is not surprising then, that John takes the ancient image of man’s city, made with ordinary materials and powered by gross immorality and compares it metaphorically with the “city” of His morally pure and redeemed people.
God’s City reaches much farther into the heavens (1500 miles!) than man’s most exalted structure. Our atmosphere extends to roughly 200 of those miles, but is only breathable up to almost 6 miles.
If it were literally a city, its square footage would be roughly that of the moon! It would cause massive tilting of the earth and could be seen from Mars or Venus with only a small telescope.
Mankind’s best does not even rate comparison. The two cities are actually comparisons of two ways of living: under human empire or within God’s will.
Mankind’s empire is characterized by hubris, hypocrisy and oppressive force. God’s will is characterized by justice, mercy and faithfulness. Today, we get to pick our side. We need to evaluate which one we pick very carefully.
Only God’s “city” will last into the new heavens and the new earth, where rivers of living waters spring out of the ground and water the Trees of Life. John finishes the book with an encouragement to “wash their robes that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they might enter the city by the gates.”
One has to wonder if New Testament writers ever read the work of their contemporaries. A similar idea is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews uses a word in Heb. 2:10 that describess “pioneer” or “captain” of our salvation. Rod Remin, a New Testament professor with a background in Greek Classics recognizes the word as a technical term for a man who leads an expedition to found a new Greek city. Once the land is cleared and crops are good, he returns to his home city to recruit additional colonists.
The Book of Revelation was intended to be understood by the people of that generation, and therefore by our own. Not for a prophetic time-line, but rather as an overview – a contrast – between the the earthly realm and its ways and the heavenly realm and its ways. Yes, Jesus will return to make the crooked ways straight – and we rejoice!
The main theme, however, is the contrast between Babylon the Great and the City of God. One is immoral and corruptible. The other is pure and immortal. In that message is both an encouragement and a warning. Let us not overlook the encouragement.
In the Book of Revelation the Kingdom of God is presented as an entirely different kind of civilizaton from the human-based system of Babylon the Great. May this contrast help us present the gospel in way that encourages a change of citizenship from the Evil Empire to the Kingdom of God.