In the end, God will not allow anything to spoil His perfected kingdom. When Christ returns, sin will be punished, justice will be done, and evil will be destroyed. What was ruined will be repaired, and we will dwell in a new Jerusalem, on a new earth, in a new creation. Because of this promise, Alistair Begg explains, all who believe in Christ can look forward to joining with God’s people from every era, united in His place, submitted to His rule, and experiencing His perfect blessing.
Now, from Revelation chapter 22, we’ll read from the first verse: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
“The angel said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his [servant] the things that must soon take place.’
“‘Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.’
“I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’”
Let us pray together:
Our gracious God and eternal Father, in this evening hour we come to seek your face, assured that when we seek you, we will find you, when we search for you with all of our hearts. We thank you that your Word explains to us that the very desire of our hearts to reach out to you is because of the initiative that you have taken with us, sending the Lord Jesus as one who came seeking to save that which was lost. And we thank you that from the very outset of the Scriptures through to the very end, as we read it here this evening, the story of your redeeming love, of your amazing grace, is greater than words can tell. And by observation and then by experience, many of us have come to know and love you because you have first loved us. And we thank you that your love for your children is an unconditional love. We thank you that all of your promises find their “yes” and their fulfillment in your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And we thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in our lives, and to make Jesus increasingly precious to us, and to open up our eyes to the truth of the Bible, and to set our feet on the pathway of faith and obedience.
We thank you that on this first day of a new week, on this Sunday evening, that we are in this place by your amazing providence, ordering the steps of our lives and granting us safety in our travels, nudging us by the encouragement of friends and family members, correcting us by the rebuke of your Word and the insistent involvement of others in our lives—we are in this place. And we thank you that you have not only ordered our steps but that you have plans and purposes for your people; that you have good deeds foreordained for us to do. And as we look out on a new Monday and another week, many of us thinking of new opportunities—the possibilities of returning to our studies at school and new beginnings—we thank you that while we have not been saved by works, that you have saved us for works, so that we might commend the Lord Jesus Christ, and that all of our days and all of our deeds may be found good for someone and good for something.
We thank you that tonight there are those who, in obedience to the Lord Jesus, are about to be baptized. And we pray that as we join with them and listen to their testimonies and share with them in this affirmation of their faith, that those of us who love Jesus may be caused to love him more, and those of us who have been wondering about him might come to know him, and those of us who have been faltering behind him may step forward with an obedient heart. Hear, then, the prayers of each of our hearts, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Well, before we share this evening in these baptisms, we turn, I think probably for the last time, to this overview of the Bible. I have a notion that there might be a PS two Sunday mornings from now, but I haven’t fully decided on that. We’ve gone today without the screen before us; I just felt liberated from it. It’s been helpful, I believe, and as I’ve promised you, all of this will be available to you not so long from now in fine and printed fashion, and you will have occasion to rejoice in the work that has been done and from which I have so clearly benefited from myself.
But for now, tonight, we come to this issue of the perfected kingdom, probably for the last time. Those of you who followed this series through have known—and I repeat it just for any who may be visiting—that we’ve been looking at the Bible from the perspective of the kingdom of God, discovering it as God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule, and enjoying God’s blessing. And this morning, we ended our study by considering the opportunity of faith in light of the reality of judgment. And as we looked at the very solemn words in chapters 18 and 19 and 20 and into 21, we realize that God is determined that no one and nothing will be allowed to spoil or destroy his perfected kingdom. He is making this brand-new. He is preparing it—has been from all of eternity—and when he finally brings it to fruition, when he finally puts it together in all of his perfected plan, no one or nothing will be allowed to spoil it. And that is why sin will be punished, and justice will be done, and evil will be destroyed. And the new heaven and the new earth, about which we read and have read this evening, will be a place in which, Peter tells us, righteousness dwells. In 2 Peter chapter 3, when Peter is addressing the prospect of the return of Jesus Christ, he points out to his readers that this new heaven and new earth will be a place in which righteousness dwells. And all that was ruined in the old will be repaired and beautified in the new.
And what we actually read here in the verses of 21:4–5, of God wiping tears from their eyes and there being “no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” is a place that’s hard to understand, isn’t it? That there will be no more crying and no more pain. When we fly in the new earth, as presumably we shall, there will be no one crying in the row behind us. For those of you who fly a great deal, this is a measure of great encouragement. This is, frankly, something to look forward to. Because contemporary flying is like being in a crèche for four and a half hours, living in a nursery that you’ve paid a significant amount of money for. I am looking forward to the day when there will be no more crying. I recognize that may be a selfish expectation, but I’m being honest with you. There will be no more death, so there’s no possibility of crashing; there’ll be no mourning, because there will be no dying; there’ll be no crying, there’ll be no pain, because “the old order of things has passed away.” In other words, this is paradise restored—paradise restored-plus. And this whole notion of a new heaven and a new earth, à la Revelation 21:1, is an intriguing notion: the idea of the first heaven and the first earth passing away.
I haven’t had time to think this through, and I’ll say this just for your intrigue. It’s a little naughty of me, but nevertheless, I’ll go to it. The idea—the word here for “new” and the word for “new” that is used of this in 2 Peter 3 is actually not a word that is descriptive of new in terms of time and origin. But it is actually a word that is descriptive of new in terms of kind and quality. Now, that has to be set in light of what we read—for example, in 2 Peter—about the earth being destroyed with fire and “the elements [melting] with fervent heat.” So I am intrigued by that notion; I’m intrigued by those who point to it. And what the commentators are suggesting is that Satan is not going to get the satisfaction of God destroying his creation, but rather, God is going to purify it by fire. He’s going to transform it so that it reflects all the glory and all the magnificence that he intended for it in the first place , when we find creation in the garden of Eden in all of its pristine beauty.
Now, the notion simply preserves for us the idea of the “earthness” of the new earth, if you like, because as we’ve gone through this series, a couple of times we’ve pointed out that many of us have a notion of heaven that is so bizarre and so out there that it is actually very unappealing. And there is a sense in which we need to ground the truth about all that we look forward to in light of the fact that not only will there be a new heaven, but there will be new earth. Isaiah 11 says that “the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “The meek … shall inherit the earth.” Now, this is not a main thing or a plain thing; it is simply a matter of interest. What we can say for absolute certainty is that God is going to make everything new. He will take what is present and he will transform it or replace it, giving to us a new heaven and a new earth in which dwells righteousness.
But the very language that is employed suggests to us that the new is going to be the same but different, in much the same way that you have in the resurrection body. So that the body of Jesus was the same, but it was different. At times they recognized him, and then they didn’t recognize him. Suffice it to say, that the idea of some kind of disembodied existence in the future, with us kind of living in a soul world where every so often we play harps, has more to do with a sort of Victorian mythology than it has to do with biblical theology. And the closing chapters of Revelation provide us with this variety of pictures, mainly from the Old Testament, to describe this new world that God has promised through the prophets.
Let me summarize it in three areas. First of all, the fact of a new creation—the fact of a new creation. An elderly lady hobbled out of church one Sunday morning, and she remarked to the pastor as she tried to make it out of the door—she said to him, “You don’t happen to know where I can find new legs, do you?” “Well,” the pastor replied, “not in this world, but you’ll get them in the next. Do you mind waiting for a while?” To which the lady said over her shoulder, “No, that’s worth waiting for.” Now, in every realistic sense, she speaks the reality of all that we anticipate. This new creation is going to be worth waiting for. God is not simply going to renew our souls, but our bodies too. God is going to renew the environment in which we then live. We’re going to be, according to 1 Corinthians 15, physical people living in a physical place. We will recognize one another.
How all of this works in relationship to marriage and everything else is a matter of great intrigue, isn’t it? And some of you have said to your spouses, “I may not be able to marry you, but it doesn’t say that I can’t hang with you. It doesn’t say that I can’t find you. It doesn’t say that we can’t go to the park together. It doesn’t say that; it just says we don’t get married.” But who knows what we might be able to do without sin in the perfection of that new creation? But that’s not a main thing or a plain thing either. That’s just me hoping for the best.
Physical people in a physical place. That’s why, for example, in Romans chapter 8, you have the picture of the whole creation standing on tiptoe, longing to be liberated from its bondage to decay. That’s what he says in Romans 8:19: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning … in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Now, you see, this is the significance of 21—that is, Revelation 21:4—no death, no decay, none of the things that currently spoil life on earth will be present then. The story of the Bible begins in Genesis with the world as designed by God in all of its pristine beauty, tells us how sin has spoiled it, that all that is anticipated by the prophets then finds its fulfillment in this new creation. So that’s the first thing, then: a new creation.
Secondly, a new Jerusalem—a new Jerusalem. “[And] I saw the Holy City”—21:2—“the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” What a mixture of metaphors and pictures there: “I saw a city dressed like a bride prepared for her husband.” You see how important it is that you stand far enough back from the text so as not to make a complete mess of everything by pressing things to their logical conclusion. Have you ever seen a city look like a bride? Have you ever seen a city dressed up in a wedding dress? No, of course you haven’t. So, John is speaking here in terminology that is mixing all of these pictures. It ties with what we said this morning about the city of God and the city of man. The city of man—the tower of Babel, man’s attempt to create a perfect world by human effort—builds a tower; it reaches up into the sky to try and reach God, and it is doomed to failure, then and now. Instead, God comes and reaches down to man. And indeed, here in the grand finale, the city of God comes down to us: “And I saw this Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
Well, what does this tell us? It tells us, in part, that we are going to be city dwellers. Those of you who like the countryside, you’re going to have to get ready for the city. We’re going to live in the city, apparently. We’re going to live in community, and we’re going to live in harmony. And this is going to comprise believers from all the ages and from all places. (And, of course, as you know, there’s only going to be 144,000 that make it. So, given all believers in all time, from everywhere in the world, write down on a sheet of paper what you think your chances are.) Turn to Revelation chapter 7—you shouldn’t laugh too soon—Revelation chapter 7: “[And] then I heard the [numbers] of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” In 22:4—a finger in each place—“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” This, of course, is another reference to the fact that if the Evil One can mark people as his own, God can mark people as his own as well. And indeed, this group, this company, is described as those who had been marked in this way.
Now, I’m being a little naughty with you once again, just for fun. But also to help you, to make sure that you don’t become some crazy person when you get on your own with the book of Revelation. You need, of course, to read Revelation 7:4, in light of Revelation 7:9. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. [And] they were wearing white robes,” and so on. So, in verse 9, we have a company that no one can count, and in verse 4, we have 144,000. Now, given the way in which numbers are used in the book of Revelation, what do you think is the most sensible conclusion? That Revelation 7:4 and Revelation 7:9 are parallel statements. That 144,000, which is 12 x 12 x 1000, is a classic figurative way of expressing a very large number that is fixed. For remember, God is putting together a people that are his very own out of every nation, language, tribe, and tongue, etc. God knows what he’s doing, and he knows who he’s doing it with. But when that company is viewed from this perspective, figuratively, we may think of it in terms of this most magnificent expression in 144,000, but in actual fact, it’s a company—verse 9—that no one could count and a multitude from all over the place.
You see, in John’s time, the church was very, very small in numbers, and it was really quite insignificant. Frankly, the church seems in many eras small and insignificant too, and throughout history, it has seemed that way. But what John tells us in the book of Revelation is simply this—he tells the first-century Christians, and we get to listen to it now, because we still have the Bible as it’s written down for us: the church is bigger than we estimate. The church is far bigger than we can actually imagine. But of course, why would we be surprised? Because what have we said is the story of the Bible? The story of the Bible is the fulfillment of the promise of God to Abraham, remember, that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And what was it that God said to Abraham concerning his seed: “He took him outside”—Genesis 15—“and [he] said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” So it’s a vast, vast number. Incidentally, when we do the book of Revelation, I think we’ll be able to help one another out and sort out these things with many of these numbers that people have a tremendous time with and tie one another up in knots.
At Babel, God separated the people. Different nations and different languages emerged, but now John pulls back the curtain and he sees that one day all of that is going to be reversed. And God is able to do what the United Nations is incapable of doing: God is putting together a new community. And when that community is finally brought together in heaven, it will be seen clearly to be multiracial, to be multicultural. It will have united black and white, and male and female, and Jew and Arab, and Serb and Croat. Because the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is for all nations.
So, what do we look forward to? We look forward to a new creation, we look forward to a new Jerusalem, and we look forward to a new temple—to a new temple. Verse 3 of 21: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. [And] they will be his people.’” But what about Revelation 21:22? What are you talking about, “a new temple”? John says, “I did not see a temple in the city.” Well, the explanation is clear. It’s in the second half of the verse, isn’t it? In the past, God had lived with his people in the temple. After the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians, he prophesied through Ezekiel that he would build a new temple. That promise has been fulfilled through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. And so it is that as believers we know his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and the church is God’s temple on the earth. Our knowledge is still limited, albeit we know something of this kind of intimacy with God, but certainly not all that we might long for nor all that he intends for us.
And when you read through 2 and 21, for example, all of these numbers here again, the 12,000 stadia and the 144 cubits thick and so on: “The city”—verse 16—“was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide.” And what you have there is a description of a cube, which some of you will recall was actually the configuration of the holy of holies in the temple. And the holy of holies in the midst of the temple was actually set out in that way as a perfect cube. And it was there in the holy of holies that God’s presence was focused. But in the holy of holies, there was only room for one man. And only one man was able to go into that cube, and he was only able to do it on one day out of all of the days in the year. He went there on the Day of Atonement, having offered first sacrifice for his own sins, and then sacrifice on behalf of the sins of the people. Do you see how glorious this is? Because the cube that is described here is fifteen hundred miles square—fifteen-hundred-miles-square cube. It was an area as large as the known world in John’s day. John is describing that which is so fantastic. What is his point? His point is that there will be no special place in the new creation where God’s presence will be concentrated. There will be no special building to visit if we want to meet God. There will be no distance between God and ourselves, and there is no temple because everything is temple. That’s the significance of the statement.
Now, the radical transformation in circumstances is so vast, so rich, so wide, that no wonder Paul says that “eye hasn’t seen nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared for them that love him.” John approximates at these things; he describes the indescribable. He harnesses all that he can come up with in terms of language and prophetic insights to try and put together this radical picture of something that is brand-new. So, when we think of the kingdom of God, when we remind ourselves that all of God’s promises will be fulfilled in the end, we remind ourselves that God’s people, consisting of all those from every nation and from every era who trust in Christ, will be united in God’s place—new creation, new Jerusalem, which is the new temple. They will then submit to God’s rule, and as a result, they will experience God’s perfect blessing. And the throne of God and the Lamb is right at the center of everything.
So, the New Testament ends the way the Old Testament ends. The Old Testament ends looking forward. Incidentally, when people were looking forward to the first coming of Jesus, none of them got it right. It’s a warning for those of us who, in looking forward to the second coming of Jesus, immediately assume that we are the ones who have got it right. But the New Testament ends with anticipation and expectation. That is one of the marks of Christian reality; it is one of the tests of the vibrancy of your faith and mine. It is one of the touchstones by which we might gauge the health and spiritual vitality of the church in the twenty-first century.
To the extent that that is true, is there not perhaps cause for alarm? What, then, is the indication in the life of a believer that they are sincerely expecting Jesus to return? It is not their ability to articulate whatever perspective they may have on the details of how that will take place. No, it’s essentially two things. One, the purity of the believer’s life: he or she who has this hope within him or her purifies themselves, even as Christ is pure. Therefore, we would anticipate that somebody who said they were earnestly longing to meet Jesus would be somebody who is taking seriously the challenges of living a life that is pure before the gaze of God.
Sitting this morning, for some reason, as we were in the midst of praise, I looked down at my shoes, and I had the thought, “Man, these shoes have been a lot of places since the last time I sat on the front row—these shoes have been all kinds of places.” And then I thought—and I don’t know when this was, I hope during the announcements—and then I thought, “Imagine if my shoes could speak. I mean, imagine if somebody could get my shoes and my shoes could say everywhere they’ve been.” Where have my shoes been? Because where my shoes have been, unless they were stolen, is where my feet have been, and where my feet have been, is where I have been. “Well, be careful little feet where you go. Be careful little feet where you go. For there’s a Father up above, and he’s looking down in love, so be careful little feet where you go.” “Be careful little eyes what you see … ears what you hear … hands what you touch,” because “there’s a Father up above, and he’s looking down in love,” and he knows his children are excited to see him, first by the purity of their lives. That is an unavoidable test. I may make all kinds of protestations, all kinds of statements from the pulpit, but it is my own personal holiness that is an indication of whether I am really looking forward to the return of Jesus.
And the second thing is whether I am actually passionately concerned to see other people come to know Jesus—that I am actually involved in telling others about Jesus, by life and by lip. That’s how an individual can test whether they are looking for the return of Christ. So, take the test, believer.
And for the unbeliever to be confronted with the return of Christ, let me tell you what they will do when their eyes are opened: they will rush to Christ. Rush to him, acknowledging that they have treated him wrongly, relying entirely upon what he has accomplished, acknowledging their need of his rule in their lives, as we said this morning.
And if a vibrant church universal is a church that is awaiting the return of Jesus with earnest, fervent hope , honestly, loved ones, where do you think the twenty-first century church is in America? Think of all of the new songs that you have sung or learned in the last quarter of a century, and I’d be prepared to wager that less than 5 percent of them bear any reference whatsoever to the return of Jesus Christ. Why? Because the church is earthbound—wants healing now, wants power now, wants everything now—totally unprepared to allow God to be God, to say, “Father knows best, and ‘I’ll get it to you when it’s right for you.’” Some of you grew up, didn’t you—those of you who had the kind of heritage that I’ve been privileged to enjoy—singing all those songs? And so many of them are about the return of Jesus. I’m sure we could just start on them now—we could go right through them:
Maybe morning, maybe noon,
Maybe evening, and maybe soon,
Coming again, coming again,
Oh, what a wonderful day it will be,
Jesus is coming again.
I’m waiting for the dawning
Of that bright and blessed day
When the darksome night of sorrow
Will have vanished far away;
When forever with the Savior,
Far beyond the vale of tears,
We will spread the song of gladness
In the everlasting years.
This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through;
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue.
It will be worth it all when we see Jesus!
[Earth]’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ.
One [look at] his dear face all sorrow will erase.
So, bravely run the race till we see Christ.
And I think one of the other things—and I thought of this forcibly just this afternoon; it struck me heavily and heartily—my wife thought I was being sentimental as I listened to a CD, but we didn’t talk. I knew she was coming around me. She’s used to me crying when I read stories about dogs and cats and everything, despite my public persona that I have used as a barrier to keep you all from me. But actually, the thing that struck me was, if I really have a zealous, genuine longing for the perfected kingdom of God in a new heaven and a new earth, then it surely must make me increasingly concerned—and in a way that takes action—to see my Jewish friends confronted with the claims of Jesus Christ.
My school friends in Scotland—thirty-three percent of my class, at least, was Jewish. Many of the friends that I’ve made in Cleveland are Jewish too. There is a veil over their eyes when Moses is read. Most of the outreach to Jewish people is tied to a certain eschatological perspective, and those who don’t share that same passion tend to be sidelined in the adventure for the Jews. But if you think about the distinctiveness of a city like Cleveland, and the place in which we’ve been set, then don’t we begin to get a little under the sense of urgency of Paul when he says, “My heart would break for my people: when I think about the law, when I think about the promises, when I think about all that they have known”? Well, may God guard us and guide us and keep us as we think these things out. And may he surprise us with plans and purposes that he has for us. May we see many, many Jewish people come to trust in Yeshua—Messiah Jesus.
Father, I just pray that, out of all of these rambling words, that the focus of our hearts and minds may be upon the Lord Jesus Christ: the sacrifice for sin, the Lord of glory, the returning King, the Lamb in the midst of the throne, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I pray that you will turn those of us who do not believe to faith in your Son and that you’ll stir those of us who do believe with an earnest expectation of your coming that makes itself known in the purity of our lives and in the zealousness of our evangelism. We rest in Christ alone, and in his name we pray. Amen.
 Revelation 22:1–9 (NIV 1984).
 Jeremiah 29:13 (paraphrased).
 Luke 19:10 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 1:20 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:10 (paraphrased).
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1981), 47.
 2 Peter 3:13 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 21:4 (NIV 1984).
 2 Peter 3:10 (KJV).
 Isaiah 11:9 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 5:5 (KJV).
 Romans 8:19–22 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 7:4 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 7:9 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 12:3 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 15:5 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 2:9 (paraphrased).
 1 John 3:3 (paraphrased).
 Traditional children’s song.
 John W. Peterson, “Jesus Is Coming Again” (1957).
 J. T. Benson, “This World Is Not My Home” (1908).
 Esther Kerr Rusthoi, “When We See Christ” (1941).
 Romans 9:1–5 (paraphrased).