The bible is a dramatic story of ruin and renewal, rebellion and redemption. It begins with a holy God and his good creation. But what could have flourished is cursed when a seditious serpent sparks mutiny. Adam and Eve rebel against God’s authority to partake of the one thing he’d forbidden—a piece of fruit—and every crevice of the earth has been infected by the curse ever since. We’ve endured sickness and strife, disasters and diseases, hatred and heartache. Sin has severed our relationships. Suffering has inhabited our days. The world itself is wasting away, and the enemy death awaits us all. There isn’t a person or place on earth immune to the staggering consequences of the fall. Everything has been broken. And because of that, we, along with the rest of creation, groan. But as God’s people, we don’t groan without hope.
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:20–25).
But what is this hope we anticipate? What unseen reality do we patiently await? Revelation 21:1–4 gives us a glimpse into God’s final act of redemption, when our broken world is made new. It shows us that evil has an expiration date, that pain and sorrows will cease, and that all our tears will be wiped away by the God who dwells with us.
Written around 95 AD, the book of Revelation is addressed to first-century churches in seven cities of the Roman province of Asia—representatives of all Christ’s churches. As the last book added to the canon of Scripture, its placement is fitting. Genesis marks the beginning, Revelation marks the end.
Revelation is also a unique book due to its combination of genres. It is written as a letter (Rev. 1:4) and identifies itself as both prophetic (1:3; 22:7) and apocalyptic (1:1). “‘Apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek noun apokalypsis, meaning ‘revelation, disclosure, unveiling’—that is, the disclosure of unseen heavenly or future realities.” John utilizes visionary writing, sharing a series of visions that Jesus—the divine author—had given him to record. Describing graphic settings, vivid characters, and epic battles, Revelation unveils a host of present and future spiritual realities. It is full of poetry, imagery, metaphors, and similes. Carefully studying and navigating those literary forms is crucial when it comes to sound interpretation. “The most important thing to know about the literary form of the book of Revelation is that it uses the technique of symbolism from start to finish. Instead of portraying characters and events directly, much of the time the author portrays them indirectly by means of symbols.”
Though John describes a vast array of visions and symbols, they all demonstrate, in some way, the same theme: Divine victory. They depict Jesus’ victory over Satan and his final judgment of mankind. They reveal his authority over history. And they show us the very good ending he planned all along, one where God is present with his people and all things are made new.
And that is where we find our text. Revelation 21:1–4 is nestled near the very end of the book. John has already written his warnings to the churches, shared visions of judgement, and the hope of the returning King. If the purpose of the book as a whole is to warn, encourage, and comfort the church, the purpose of this particular passage is to bring steadfast hope and courage to God’s suffering people as they endure life in a sin-ravaged world.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1–4
Analyzing the Text
Verse 1 opens with a striking signal of total cosmic renewal, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” No part of creation is left unaffected. Nothing is held back. The already-not-yet redemption so far experienced in history will be complete. Bible scholars disagree on what this newness connotes. Is it an entirely different heaven and earth, with no resemblance to ours? Or is it a perfected, purified, and glorified version of the original? I’m inclined to believe the latter. The late New Testament scholar Dr. William Hendriksen wrote, “The word used in the original implies that it was a ‘new’ but not an ‘other’ world,” noting that the original word used was “kainos” not “neos.” This is a significant detail. This is not creation ex-nihilo, it’s a re-creation.
The end of verse 1 might leave a modern reader confused, especially if we’re unfamiliar with the perspective the original readers understood. Why was the sea no more? How is that relevant to the new heaven and new earth? Does this simply mean there aren’t any large bodies of water in the new creation? It’s impossible to understand this small—but significant—detail without considering what “sea” has thus far symbolized to God’s people.
“The ‘sea’ that no longer exists symbolizes that realm from which chaos and rebellion have emerged to ravage the first earth. Daniel saw four hostile beasts, representing pagan powers that would arise in history to oppress God’s people, come up out of the sea (Dan. 7:3); and it was from the sea that John saw the beast emerge to receive the dragon’s devilish power and wage his devilish war against the saints (Rev. 13:1). The sea in heaven is calm and clear as glass (15:2), but the earthly sea that gave rise to the beast stormed with restless, threatening rebellion. Its absence in the new earth further dramatizes the eradication of enemy forces that would have threatened the new home’s peace and purity.”
The absence of a sea in this vision emphasizes that the new heaven and new earth are impenetrable when it comes to evil. There will be no beast rising from the sea, nor the blasphemy and persecution he incites. There won’t be a hint of evil or brokenness or sin anywhere.
Next, John records, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” There is a feeling of anticipation here. This marriage had already been announced (Rev. 19:7), and finally, the bride is adorned and ready to meet her husband. “The adjectives new and holy point to characteristics distinguishing it from the present world, whereas Jerusalem rather points to continuity.” This is the processional to the wedding, when Christ and his bride—the church—will finally consummate their union.
Then, a loud voice bellows from the throne and bids our attention, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Note the repetition. This verse proclaims and promises, reassures and reminds, that at the end of all things God will dwell with his people. There will be uninterrupted communion, unhindered fellowship, undivided intimacy. And the results of this holy communion are what follows in verse 4. God himself will tenderly wipe the tears from his people’s eyes. No longer will they experience death or crying or pain or mourning. The former things—meaning, every remnant of the curse and its effect—will have passed away, once and for all.
With as powerful as the text is in its own right, it’s even richer when we consider it in view of redemptive history. Revelation 21:1–4 is the long-awaited crescendo of redemption. In leading us to the finale, it echoes the prelude, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God, the creator, is creating again. This is the dawn of a new beginning.
Isaiah spoke of this when he prophesied, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isa. 65:17). No longer will the earth be tainted by thorns and thistles or the pangs of childbirth. Instead, “…my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands, they shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity” (Isa. 65:22–23). The curse of Genesis 3 will be reversed.
God’s people will finally be presented as a pure and beautiful bride, cleansed by the blood of Christ. Israel had long known of its betrothal, “For your Maker is your husband—the LORD Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isa. 54:5). And yet, Israel proved to be an adulterous nation, and she frequently “played the whore” (Hosea 9:1). She turned to sin and idols and counterfeit gods over and over again. A habit that continued to be a problem in the New Testament church (James 4:4). But someday, as Revelations depicts, the age of unfaithfulness and infidelity will be over. Through his cleansing blood, Christ will present his church “blameless before the presence of his glory in great joy” (Jude 24). Already, Christ has freed his people from sin’s bondage and healed us of its lethal wound, but on that day its presence will be wholly eradicated—not one iota of sin will remain. The alienation caused by Adam and Eve’s rebellion—rebellion that was mirrored in every subsequent generation—will finally cease.
All throughout redemptive history God demonstrated his faithfulness to move towards his people, despite their unfaithfulness. Woven from Genesis to Revelation we find the theme of God working to reestablish the intimacy sin had stolen. He led the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 13:21). He gave them detailed instructions for building a tabernacle, so that his presence could dwell among them. Knowing that Israel would continue to sin, creating a barrier between them and God, he established ceremonial and sacrificial laws so that they could approach his temple. “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God” (Exod. 29:45–46). And this promise of dwelling with his people continued to echo throughout the Old Testament (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 37:27; Ezek. 43:7–9; Zech. 2:11; 8:8).
The dwelling of God with man is the ultimate end we’ve awaited, a reality that finds its fulfillment in Christ. The Son of God put on human flesh, to dwell among us (John 1:14). The King of the universe was born of a virgin—Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23; Isa 7:14). Never before had there been such intimate access to God. And though Jesus ascended to heaven, he left his people with the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–17; Acts 2:4; Rom. 8:11; Ezek. 36:27). We would not be alone. Even now, God is dwelling among his people. But while this dwelling is profound and real, it is not yet fully realized. However, on that day—the day Revelation 21:3 anticipates—we will finally and forever be with God, in the presence of his unveiled glory.
And when God’s people finally stand in the fullness of his presence, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). This is a picture of total restoration. All the effects of the curse will be reversed, just as Isaiah prophesied, “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation’” (Isa. 25:8–9.)
That last enemy—death—will be conquered. Jesus already overcame it in his resurrection, and soon it will be vanquished forever. Anyone made alive in Christ will never have to fear death again (1 Cor. 15:20–26).
The good news of this vision doesn’t end there. Instead, John paints an even more beautiful picture. Not only will God dwell among his people, not only will death be no more, but all reasons for mourning and sadness shall cease. “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10).
Hope for Sinners, Sufferers, and Saints
Since the beginning of history, there has been much reason for sorrow and sighing. Eve grieved the murder of Abel and the guilt of Cain. Noah saw a wicked world destroyed by a flood. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, falsely accused by a powerful temptress, and unjustly sentenced to prison. The Israelites endured slavery and exile, as well as the bitter fruit of their own rebellion. Ruth was widowed before she married Boaz. David feared for his life, wept with regret for his sins, and was pierced to the heart by his children. Prophets were hated, preachers imprisoned, and the early church persecuted for following Christ. Even our own Lord wept. Therefore, Christians today must not be surprised by the pain we experience as sinners, sufferers, and saints.
As those who are still sinners, we will often face consequences for our actions. Sometimes, our burdens and troubles are the result of our own foolishness, pride, selfishness, and idolatry. We may even make trainwrecks of our lives. But even then—even when we are entirely responsible for the suffering we face—we can be encouraged by Revelation 21:1–4. Our sin has been washed in the blood of Christ. We may endure consequences for our actions and face God’s loving hand of discipline, but we can be confident that we have a good future ahead of us. Someday, we will be presented as the spotless bride of Christ. We will live in a new heavens and a new earth, where we’ll no longer fall prey to the lure of temptation. Our sinful flesh will be forever put to death, “and we shall be like him, because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
As those born in a fallen world, we’ll also experience life as sufferers. We will be wounded by the sins of others. Our bodies will experience disease and decay. We’ll grieve the deaths of those we love. Sometimes, there will seem to be no end of our tears. Suffering hits in waves, threatening to drown us in grief. But as we suffer, we can remember that the God who collects our tears in his bottle will also wipe them away (Ps. 56:8; Rev. 1:4). We must not lose heart—even when our hearts ache most—because our affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16–18). Suffering, even in its most severe forms, is temporary for the Bride of Christ.
Finally, as saints, we must expect to share in the sufferings of our Savior. Our tears may flow because we are reviled, falsely accused, and persecuted for Christ. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trail when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:12–14). When we suffer for Christ we must remember what—and who—awaits us. Jesus is preparing a place for us, a kingdom that cannot be shaken, where God’s glory shines so bright there’s no need of sun or moon (John 14:3; Rev. 21:23). We will leave this place of wickedness to live forever where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
The reason we—as sinners, sufferers, and saints—have hope in a sin-sick world is because we know the end of the story. Even as we weep and sigh and mourn and cry, Revelation 21:1–4 reminds us that Jesus wins. Someday, our God will wipe our tears and overcome all sorrow. Death will be vanquished. Sin will cease. We will possess everlasting joy and peace.
WISE series (Women in Seminary Education): This article was originally an assignment I submitted to Westminster Theological Seminary, where I am pursuing my Master of Arts in Theological Studies.
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 The ESV Study Bible, 2455.
 William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 198.
 Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 303-304.
 Leon Morris, Revelation: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 2nd Ed (Leicester, England: Inter-varsity Press, 1987), 237.