The New Heavens, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem
21 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.”
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:1–27 (ESV)
CONTENTS. All the enemies of God have now been vanquished, and nothing remains but to perfect the happiness and glory of the redeemed in their eternal home. To the description, accordingly, of this home the chapter now before us is devoted.
Ver. 1. It is a new heaven and a new earth that the Seer beholds, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.
Yet it is not necessary to think of an entirely new creation, as if the first had disappeared, and a second were called into existence by a fresh creative act of the Almighty. The last clause of the verse, and the sea was no more, is itself at variance with any supposition of the kind; for, had the old heavens and earth been literally extinguished, the sea would have shared their fate, and no special mention of it would have been required. The same conclusion is to be drawn from the word used by St. John to mark the fact that the heavens and the earth which he now saw were ‘new.’
Two words are employed in the New Testament to express the idea of newness, the one bringing prominently forward the thought of a recent introduction into existence (as in the case of young persons), the other of that freshness or continuing greenness of quality which may belong even to what is old.
In this latter sense the body of our Lord was laid in a ‘new tomb,’ in a tomb not it may be recently prepared, but which, because no man had as yet been laid in it, retained that quality of freshness by which it was fitted for Him who could see no corruption.
In like manner the ‘tongues’ referred to in Mark 16:17 are described by the same word for ‘new.’ In one sense old, they were devoted to a new purpose, enabled to express the mysteries of a new and higher state of being. The ‘heavens,’ the ‘earth,’ and the ‘Jerusalem’ here spoken of are in this sense ‘new.’ They are the ‘new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness’ (2 Pet. 3:13).
The meaning of the last clause of this verse is difficult to determine. But it seems clear that we are not to understand the words in their literal acceptation. We must seek the solution of the difficulty in that meaning of the word ‘sea’ which we have found it necessary to apply in almost every passage of this book where we have met it. The ‘sea’ is not the ocean; it is the emblem of the ungodly. It connects itself with the thought of restlessness, disorder, and sin. These shall be excluded from the better and higher state of the redeemed in their abode of future blessedness.
Ver. 2. The Apostle beholds the metropolis of the renovated world under the figure of that metropolis which was so intimately associated with the memories and aspirations of the people of God, a New Jerusalem.
Her newness will be afterwards more particularly described, but even now we are told enough to convey to us a lofty idea of her grandeur and beauty. She comes down out of heaven, from God, and she is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Is there not a reminiscence in the word ‘prepared’ of that great promise in John 14:3 which the apostle who saw this vision was to record? The Bridegroom is now the ‘Husband’ (comp. ‘wife’ in ver. 9).
Ver. 3. The Seer next hears a great voice out of the throne.
The voice may not be actually that of God Himself, but it certainly expresses the Divine thoughts and purposes.—Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall tabernacle with them, and they shall be his peoples, and he himself, even God with them, shall be their God. The allusion is to the Tabernacle in the wilderness (not the temple), that sacred tent which was the dwelling-place of God in the midst of Israel. That Tabernacle is now ‘with men,’ no longer with a people separated from the rest of the world but with men at large, for all sin is banished, and they who are alive upon the earth are without exception members of the Divine family.
In the next words, especially when viewed in the light of what seems to be the correct translation, it is impossible to mistake the reference to John 1:14, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,’ for it is in Christ Jesus that God dwells with man: in the Son only do we know the Father, the ‘only God’ (John 5:44). Hence it is said that ‘He Himself,’ even ‘God with them’ (‘Immanuel, God with us’), shall be their God. He shall no longer be at a distance from them, nor they from Him. No boundary shall be placed around the mount: no cloud shall conceal His glory. As brother dwells with brother, so God incarnate shall dwell with His brethren in one blessed home of holiness and love. From all eternity the Word had been with God (John 1:1); now He is to be to all eternity with men; and men shall be a new Israel for the new Jerusalem (comp. 2 Cor. 6:11–18 and Lev. 26:12; Zech. 8:8).
Ver. 4. All the most precious fruits of such a fellowship shall also be experienced.
He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes. Not ‘all tears’ are spoken of, but ‘every tear.’ Each single tear they shed shall be wiped away, even before it falls.—And death shall be no more. It has been destroyed by Him who ‘was dead, and behold, He is alive for evermore’ (chap. 1:18); and it can no longer disturb with its terrors, or its separations between the loving and the loved.
Neither shall there be mourning. The reference is not to mourning in general, but to wailing for the dead.
Nor crying, nor pain, any more. ‘Crying’ is the acute cry produced by any pain: ‘pain’ is the burden laid upon us by any woe, especially by such woes as are connected with the toils and sufferings of the present outward world. From all sorrow whether sharp or dull; from all burdens whether proceeding from the body or the mind, the dwellers in the New Jerusalem shall be for ever free. These trials belonged to the first things, to the old earth; and the old earth, the ‘first things,’ has passed away.
Ver. 5. What the Seer had before heard regarding the new creation had proceeded from a voice ‘out of the throne’ (ver. 3).
Now God Himself, he that sitteth on the throne, speaks. For the first time in this book the direct voice of God is heard. Hitherto He has been veiled in His own unspeakable majesty and glory, watching indeed with the deepest interest the fortunes of His Church, overruling all things for her good, but Himself unseen, unheard. Now He breaks His silence; and, as One who dwells with men (ver. 4), directs their thoughts to the accomplishment of His own holy and gracious will.
His words are, I make all things new, where the emphasis rests upon the word ‘new:’ ‘Old things are passed away; behold, they are become new’ (2 Cor. 5:17).
It is possible that the next words spoken in this verse, Write; for these words are faithful and true, may be the voice not of God, but of an angel. As no angel, however, has been spoken of in the preceding verses, and as the words now uttered are properly a parenthesis indicating the deep interest of the Almighty in His people, there is no sufficient cause to bring in the interposition of any third party.
God Himself says to His servant ‘Write,’ and Himself assures him not only that His words are ‘faithful,’ but that they are ‘true.’ The new heavens and the new earth are the end towards which God has been always working. The whole history of the world, with its opposition to the truth and with the judgments that have overtaken it; the whole history of the Church, with her struggles and victories, has not been accidental. It has been the carrying out of God’s ‘bright designs’ from the moment when He expressed Himself in the works and in the creatures of His hands.
Ver. 6. The voice of God is continued
He says, They, i.e. the words of ver. 5, are come to pass. The future for which the saints of God have longed, and of which the prophets spoke, has come. All expectations are fulfilled; all hopes are realized; the end to which all things pointed is reached. Hence, accordingly, the close connexion of the next words with these, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God is the unchangeable, the everlasting, One; the first cause, the last end, of all things. He must finish that new creation for the coming of which the sins and sorrows of the world have been only the preparatory throes.
I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. These words are neither a call nor a promise to labouring and heavy-laden ones in search of rest, and they find their parallel in the words of John 4:14 rather than of John 7:37. Those spoken of have already drunk of the living water, and been refreshed by it. Not the longing after salvation, but the longing for a continued and ever deepening participation in its blessings, is expressed by the word ‘athirst.’ The redeemed not only find their first life in Christ: they draw from Him continually those ever fresh supplies of grace by which they are sustained in spiritual life and joy.
Ver. 7. He that overcometh is the same as he that is ‘athirst,’ and is only viewed in another aspect of his glorious position.
In reference to Jesus he is always thirsty; in reference to the world and the devil he is always a conqueror. By the use of the word ‘overcometh,’ the last part of the Apocalypse is bound closely to its first (comp. the promises in chaps. 2, 3).
The promise is, I will be his God, and he shall be my son. God will be his God, his Father: he will be God’s son, enjoying the spirit of adoption by which we cry, Abba, Father, and living in that love and confidence which mark a son in a loving father’s house and presence.
Ver. 8. The happiness of the saints of God has been described.
In contrast with this, the verse before us presents us with the fate of the ungodly, who are classified first in general terms, and then by the particular sins which they commit.
The ‘fearful’ are mentioned first as occupying a position the reverse of them that ‘overcome;’ they have shrunk from the struggle; they have yielded to the foe instead of conquering him. Upon the description of the other classes it is unnecessary to dwell. They are such as have chosen the darkness rather than the light; as have loved the lie rather than the truth (John 8:44); as have deliberately resisted and cast aside the grace that might have been theirs,—their part can be only in the second death.
Ver. 9. At chap. 17:1 one of the angels that had the seven bowls had come to the Seer and shown him the great harlot that sitteth upon many waters, the mystic Babylon.
In like manner one of the same group of angels, but more fully described as one of the seven who had the seven bowls, who were laden with the seven last plagues, now shows him the city that was in every respect the contrast of Babylon, not Babylon but the New Jerusalem, not a harlot but the bride the Lamb’s wife.
The fuller description of the angel brings out more completely the fact that the last ‘plagues’ were over, and that nothing remained to be exhibited to the Seer but the glory of the redeemed in heaven. The combination of the terms ‘bride’ and ‘Lamb’s wife’ is remarkable. The Church is not only espoused but married to her Lord, yet she remains for ever in a virgin purity.
Ver. 10. The Seer is carried in the spirit, for this purpose, to a great and high mountain.
The object is that he may command a more uninterrupted view of the holy city as she descends in all her glory from heaven to earth. It was from the top of an ‘exceeding high mountain’ that Satan showed our Lord all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and for a similar purpose, that he may see more clearly the grandeur of the spectacle before his eyes, is St. John elevated to this height. Comparison of Ezek. 40:2, Isa. 2:2, and Heb. 12:22 makes it probable that the city was situated upon the ‘mountain,’ and we are therefore to understand this word not in the sense of a solitary peak but, as often in the Gospels, in that of a range of mountains where from peak to peak the view is less hampered than in the plain. The harlot in chap. 17 was a city, Babylon; the Lamb’s wife is a city, New Jerusalem.
Ver. 11. The description of the city begins, and first she is spoken of as having the glory of God.
This light lightens her both within and without. From the subsequent description it appears that the idea of the Holy of Holies is in the Seer’s mind, and we cannot therefore be wrong in thinking that the ‘glory’ which he has in view is that of the Shechinah. By it the Almighty lightened of old the innermost recesses of His sanctuary. By it He now lightens the whole of that glorious abode in which His people dwell with Him.
Her light was like unto a stone most precious, as it were a jasper stone, clear as crystal. The word of the original translated ‘light’ is rather light-bearer or light-giver, and it refers to the light which the city sheds everywhere around her like the sun or the stars of heaven. It is light of crystalline clearness and purity (comp. chap. 4:3).
Ver. 12. Having a wall great and high, having twelve gates.
The walls of ancient cities were for protection against enemies, and of such protection there was no need here. But so important in this respect were walls, that they were associated in the ancient mind with everything that in a city was brave or bold (comp. Ps. 48). Hence the New Jerusalem has not only a wall, but a wall ‘great and high.’
It has also twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels. The word translated ‘gate’ is not so much the gate itself as the porch or portal with which it was connected (comp. Matt. 26:71). It includes the gate-tower under which the traveler passes at this day into many an Eastern city. These gates were twelve in number, disposed like the gates of the encampment of Israel around the Tabernacle.
The angel at each gate in all probability marks the heavenly protection which is extended by the Almighty to His people, of each of whom it may be said that God ‘gives His angels charge concerning’ him.
And names written thereon which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. These twelve tribes represent the whole people of God, Gentile as well as Jew: and, if so, we have an argument powerfully corroborative of what has been said of the 144,000 sealed ‘out of every tribe of the children of Israel’ in chap. 7. The figure itself is from Ezek. 48:31.
Ver. 13. The distribution of the gates follows in this verse.
Ver. 14. From the gates we are next taken to the foundations. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations (comp. Heb. 11:10).
We are not to think of foundations buried in the earth, but of great and massive stones rising above the soil as a pediment sustaining the whole structure. At the same time we have not before us twelve great foundation-stones going round the city in one line, but twelve courses of stones, ‘each course encompassing the city, and constituting one foundation’ (see ver. 19).
And on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. There was one name doubtless on each foundation, but the main point of the figure is that the city rested on the twelve Apostles of our Lord. 1 Cor. 3:11 is presupposed. The twelve Apostles are ‘Apostles of the Lamb,’ placed by Him in their several positions, and fulfilling in Him their several functions.
It ought to be unnecessary to say a single word in refutation of the idea that St. John would not thus have referred to himself as an Apostle had he really been the author of this book. He is not thinking of himself. He is lost in the magnitude and glory of the apostolic office. Nor is the idea in the least degree better founded that it is St. John’s intention, out of hatred to St. Paul, to exclude him from the apostolic office. The whole passage is symbolical; the Jewish imagery could not have admitted thirteen instead of twelve foundations, and St. Paul is no more excluded from the number of Apostles than are Gentile Christians from the happiness of the city.
Ver. 15. The city is to be measured, in order that its noble and fair proportions may be seen.
The angel measures it with a golden reed, the metal of the reed corresponding in dignity and value to the city itself, which is of ‘pure gold’ (ver. 18). A measuring reed, though not of gold, is used in Ezek. 40:3.
Ver. 16. The city itself is first measured.
It lieth four square … the length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. It was thus a perfect cube; and, remembering the general imagery of this book, there can be no doubt that the Seer has the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle in his eye. That part of the Tabernacle was a cube.—The symbolism which marks the general shape marks also the details, each dimension measuring 12,000 furlongs, 12 the number of the people of God multiplied by 1000 the heavenly number.
It is indeed often supposed that the 12,000 furlongs spoken of are the measure of the four sides of the city taken together, in which case each side will measure only 3000 furlongs. But were this view correct, it would be difficult to account for the insertion of the next clause, And the length thereof is as great as the breadth. That clause would then anticipate the last clause of the verse, whereas it seems to assign a reason why the breadth alone was actually measured. Nor is it of the smallest moment to reduce the enormous dimensions spoken of. No reduction brings them within the bounds of verisimilitude, and no effort in that direction is required. The idea is alone to be thought of.
Ver. 17. The wall is next measured, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is of an angel.
It is hardly possible to think that we have here the height of the wall. So insignificant would it be when compared with the height of the city that the combination would be unnatural and grotesque. St. John, too, could then hardly have called the wall ‘great and high’ (ver. 12). The supposition, moreover, that the wall is kept low in order that the glorious light of the city may stream out over it, is inconsistent with the general imagery (comp. also on ver. 18). The wall is a part of the city as strictly as the foundations are, and is itself, like them, radiant with the light which shines forth from the city as a whole.
It seems better, therefore, to think here of the breadth of the wall. Its length and height had been measured, and its thickness is now added to complete the description of its strength. The last clause of the verse has occasioned considerable difficulty. The meaning seems to be, that a human standard of measurement was used; and it was well to note this. The New Jerusalem is not framed according to angelic ideas or for angelic purposes. It is to be the dwelling-place of men; and even, therefore, when an angel measures it, he measures it ‘according to the measure of a man.’
Ver. 18. The measuring has been completed. We have next the materials of which the city was composed.
Those of the wall are first mentioned. And the building of the wall of it was jasper. We have been already told in ver. 11 that the light shining from the city was like that of a jasper stone. The wall, which was of jasper, must have shone with a like crystalline clearness,—a distinct proof of the falseness of the idea which makes ‘the wall’ low in order that it may not obstruct the light of the city.—And the city was pure gold, the most precious metal known, but in this case transfigured and glorified, for it was like unto pure glass.
Vers. 19, 20. The materials of the twelve courses of stones which formed the basement of the city are next mentioned (comp. on ver. 14).
They are not merely beautified with precious stones. The words garnished with all manner of precious stones might suggest such an idea, but the words that follow immediately correct it. Each course was composed of the particular jewel named.
The first foundation was jasper, the clear brilliant stone already mentioned in connection with the ‘light of the city’ in ver. 11, and with the ‘building of the wall’ in ver. 18.
The second was sapphire. a stone of a clear sky-blue colour.
The third was chalcedony, by which is generally understood a greenish blue emerald.
The fourth was emerald, of a green colour peculiarly pleasing to the eye (comp. chap. 4:3).
The fifth was sardonyx, a form of onyx stone, and of a palish-white.
The sixth was sardius, a red stone (comp. chap. 4:3).
The seventh was chrysolite, a stone highly esteemed among the ancients, of a colour that was golden yellow.
The eighth was beryl, a green-coloured stone.
The ninth was topaz, a stone the leading colour of which was green, but modified by yellow.
The tenth was chrysoprasus, a stone of greenish hue.
The eleventh was jacinth, a stone of a yellow amber colour.
The twelfth was amethyst, a violet blue stone.
Some uncertainty attaches to the identification of each of these stones, but to the interpreter who would catch the idea of the Seer this uncertainty is of little moment.
Two things are especially noteworthy in regard to them when they are taken as a whole.
(1) All are precious, fitly representing the splendour of the celestial city.
(2) All are different from each other, though they blend into a harmonious unity. The glorious light of the Divine presence streams through many colours, and each course of precious stones retains beneath the common light which all give forth its own individual excellence and beauty.
Ver. 21. Having described the foundations, the Apostle now passes to the gates and street of the city.
And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl. No attempt is made to attain verisimilitude. It is enough that the figure helps to bring out the surpassing splendour.—And the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. We are probably not to think of only one street, for a city so large, and with so many gates, must have had many streets. But it is unnecessary to dwell upon them all. Each is of the same material as the rest, and all are of gold, but, as in ver. 18, of gold transfigured and glorified.
Ver. 22. The glory of the city is illustrated by other facts.
And I saw no temple therein; for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. What a revelation do these words present of the local giving place to the universal, the outward to the inward, the material to the spiritual! There could indeed be no spot more holy than another where all was holy, none purer than another where all was pure. God Himself and the Lamb in whom He is revealed to men sanctified every spot of ground within the city by their immediate presence. The inhabitants dwelt as if continually in the temple ‘praising God.’
Ver. 23. As the city was independent of the outward and ordinary means of grace, so also it was independent of the outward influences which nature supplies for the help of man.
It hath no need of the sun neither of the moon to shine upon it. In our present condition all nature is sacramental to the believing eye or ear. All tells of the supernatural behind nature. But now the shadows flee away, and God and the Lamb revealing God lighten the city with their immediate light. The glory of God spoken of is again the Shechinah, the visible symbol of His presence.
The Lamb is the lamp thereof. It may seem as if mention of the ‘lamp’ detracted from the loftiness of the imagery; but, when there is neither sun nor moon, we naturally think of the lamp which men use at night. May there not also be an allusion to the lamps of the Golden Candlestick of the Sanctuary?
Ver. 24. The description of the glory of the New Jerusalem is continued in figures taken from the prophets of the Old Testament (comp. Isa. 60:2, 3).
And the nations shall walk by the light of it. We are not required invariably to understand the heathen by the word ‘nations,’ or the faithful of the Old Covenant by the word ‘people.’ It appears from John 11:50–52 (see note there) that there is a sense in which the theocratic people are a ‘nation,’ and the heathen gathered into the flock of Christ a part of His ‘people.’
In ver. 3 of this very chapter, too, we have read of a time when God shall dwell with men, and they shall be ‘His peoples.’ The two terms ‘nation’ and ‘people’ may, therefore, be applied to the same persons viewed in different aspects. The ‘peoples’ of ver. 3 are the ‘nations’ of this verse and of chap. 22:2; and the choice of the different expressions is probably determined by the consideration that in the one God is thought of as ‘tabernacling’ in the midst of His people, in the other as being His people’s ‘light’ (comp. note on chap. 1:20, where we have a remarkable parallel both in thought and structure).
The ‘nations’ are not converted heathen alone, but all who, whether Jew or Gentile, walk in the light.—And the kings of the earth do bring their glory into it. Not the masses of the nations only, but their highest representatives and dignitaries submit themselves with all that they have to the sway of Him who now rules in righteousness, the universal King.
Ver. 25. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day; for there shall be no night there.
The design of the words is to set forth the perfect peace and security of the inhabitants of the heavenly city. How often had the gates of an ancient city to be closed, always by night, often by day! How often had measures of precaution to be taken against apprehended danger! Here there is no danger, no apprehension, no enemy to approach the gate, but happiness perfect and forever undisturbed.
The explanation of the last clause of the verse, beginning as it does with the word ‘for,’ has afforded some cause of perplexity to interpreters. Yet the explanation generally given is satisfactory. In Isa. 60:11 the prophet, speaking of the future city of God, had said, ‘Thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night.’ St. John is referring to that passage, but he could not adopt it as it stood, and he would explain why he stopped short at the word ‘day’ of the prophet. He could not bring the thought of ‘night’ into connection with the New Jerusalem, for there was ‘no night there.’
There may have been something more in his thoughts. We know from John 13:30 the symbolical meaning which he attached to the word ‘night.’ ‘It was night’ when Judas went out upon his errand of treachery and crime. The first clause of the verse contains the emblem of security and peace. The second assigns the reason why these shall continue undisturbed. There shall be no night there, no darkness either physical or moral, neither men nor deeds that shun the light.
Ver. 26. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it.
Such shall be the use made of the open gates. The nations shall stream into the city with their gifts, to lay their best upon its altars, and to enjoy in turn its rest and peace and security and light. The New Jerusalem receives freely, and possesses for ever, the glory and honour of the kings of the earth. She receives without seeking it all that Babylon had become a harlot to obtain, and could not keep.
Ver. 27. For these purposes alone shall the open gates be used.
There shall in no wise enter into it anything unclean, or he that maketh an abomination and a lie. There is indeed now nothing unclean; there is no wilful sinner of any kind to enter. All the enemies of God have been overcome: all sin has been banished for ever.—But they only which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Such alone are found upon the earth; and, as we lift our eyes to the city, we behold them flocking in from the East and from the West, from the North and from the South, their toilsome pilgrimage closed, their hard struggle ended, their glory come.
The New Jerusalem (continued) CHAPTER 22:1–5
AND he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the bstreet of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall eserve him: and they shall see his face, and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there;16 and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign forever and ever.
CONTENTS. These verses bring to a close the description of the New Jerusalem, and it is unfortunate that, in our Authorised Version, they should have been separated as they are from the parts of the same description contained in chap. 21. The verses are framed with an obvious reference to the Paradise of Gen. 1:2.
Ver. 1. And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
No scenery is complete without water; and more especially to the Jew, accustomed to a burning climate and a thirsty land, water was the constant symbol of all that was refreshing and quickening to men. The joy of the heavenly city could not, therefore, be perfect without it, ‘There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High’ (Ps. 46:4; comp. also Ezek. 47:1–12).
The river here spoken of corresponds to that of Gen. 2:10, but it is a still brighter stream. It comes ‘out of the throne of God and of the Lamb,’ out of the highest and most blessed of all sources, God Himself, our God, revealed to us in His Son in whom He is well pleased. The waters are those of peace and spiritual life: Jerusalem’s ‘peace is like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream’ (Isa. 46:12). Not only so; the waters are ‘bright as crystal,’ of sparkling purity and clearness.
Ver. 2. In the midst of the street of it.
These words are best connected with the words immediately preceding, and they thus describe the course of the river. We are again, as in chap. 21:21, to understand the word ‘street’ generically, so that the picture presented to us is that of a clear stream flowing down the middle of each street of the city, bordered with trees on either side. Yet these trees are one tree.
And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve harvests of fruits, yielding her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. The idea of the ‘tree of life’ is no doubt taken from Gen. 2:9. It grows on either side of the river, nourished by its waters and shading its banks.
Interpreters differ as to the meaning of the second clause of the verse, some preferring the rendering given above, others that of the Authorised Version, ‘twelve manner of fruits.’ A good sense may be obtained from the latter interpretation, which will point us to the variety, ever new, of the enjoyments provided for the inhabitants of the city. But the former interpretation appears to be preferable. It is almost demanded by the third clause of the verse, ‘yielding her fruit every month,’ which carries our thoughts much more to the same fruit produced every month than to twelve successive varieties of fruit. Besides this, the general idea of the passage is rather that of continuous nourishment than of variety of blessings.
Finally, the thought has direct reference to that upon which the believer lives, and this is always one and the same: ‘Christ’ liveth in us (comp. chap. 2:7). It is unnecessary to say that the number twelve is not to be understood literally. The supply of fruit, at once for the nourishment and the delectation of the saints, never fails.
In the last clause of the verse it is not implied that any inhabitants of the new earth stand in need of healing. For the same reason it is impossible to think that ‘the nations’ here spoken of have yet to be converted. They have already entered that better world to which the old world has given place. That they are ‘healed’ can signify no more than this, that they are kept in constant soundness of health by what is there administered to them. As we must persevere throughout eternity in faith, so also shall we persevere in health (comp. on John 20:31).
‘The nations’ we have already seen to be full partakers of all the blessings of the city (chap. 21:24). They include Jewish as well as Gentile Christians, and the importance of both classes, not the inferiority of either, is the leading thought.
Ver. 3. And there shall be no more anything accursed, anything upon which the curse of the Almighty rests, and fit only to be cast out of His presence.—And the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it.
What throne is this? The three clauses that follow appear to show that it is the throne of God in the innermost recess of His sanctuary. The ‘throne’ therefore is not concealed. The redeemed have constant access to it.—And his servants shall do him service. They shall perform their priestly functions forever in His presence.
Ver. 4. And they shall see his face.
It had been said to Moses by the Almighty, ‘Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see Me, and live’ (Ex. 33:20). But the blessing denied to the great leader of the hosts of Israel is granted to those who are taken up into the Mount with God. He is revealed to them in the Son, and they shall ‘see Him even as He is’ (1 John 3:2). The beatific vision of the pure in heart is that ‘they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8).
And his name shall be on their foreheads. The name referred to is that of God and of the Lamb. As the high priest of old wore upon his forehead a plate of gold with the name of Jehovah inscribed upon it, so the redeemed, now all high priests in the sanctuary, shall wear the same name upon their foreheads. Nothing is said of the golden plate. The name is written upon the forehead itself.
Ver. 5. And there shall be night no more.
We have already had a similar statement in chap. 21:25, but it is now repeated in a different connection and with a different purpose. Then it was to indicate that the gates of the city shall be continually open, so that the redeemed may continually enter with their gifts in order to magnify its King. Now it is to show that, having entered, they shall suffer no interruption in their joyful service, and shall need no nightly rest to recruit the weary frame for the service of the following day. They shall be always strong and vigorous for the service of their Lord.
And they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun, for the Lord God shall give them light. Did they need light of lamp or sun, it would show that they were still amidst the changes of this fleeting scene, for the lamp wastes as it burns, and the sun hastens daily to his setting. But He who is ‘without variableness or shadow cast by turning’ is now their light, and that light never fades. As their frame never wearies for service, so the conditions necessary for the accomplishment of that service never fail.
And they shall reign forever and ever. The transition is sudden, almost startling, for we have been reading only of ‘service.’ Yet it is eminently characteristic of St. John, who constantly delights at the close of a passage to return to his earlier steps, and to close as he had begun. He has reached the consummation of the happiness of the saints of God, and of what can it remind him but of his very earliest words, words to the echo of which has run through the whole of the Apocalypse, ‘And he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto His God and Father’ (chap. 1:6)?
It is true that the redeemed are priests, but they are more than priests. He with whom they are one is a ‘priest after the order of Melchizedek,’ both priest and king. In like manner they are both priests and kings; they ‘sit down with their Lord in His throne, even as He also overcame, and sat down with His Father in His throne’ (chap. 3:21). They share the Divine authority over all things around them, and their authority is without interruption and without end. They reign ‘forever and ever.’
Philip Schaff, Ed., The Catholic Epistles and Revelation, A Popular Commentary on the New Testament, 6th ed., 4 vols., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890), 4:151–157.