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Introduction to Alethea In Heart Ministries

The Revelation of John - Chapter XXI
Commentaries on the Entire Bible

By Rev. Henry Cowles
Professor of Church History and Prophesy at Oberlin College, and Main Editor of
The Oberlin Evangelist (responsible for giving us most of Finney's sermons).





This chapter and vs. 1-5 of the next bring before us the closing scenes in the magnificent panorama of the Apocalypse. The main question of interpretation here is whether this is truly the heavenly, post-resurrection state. Does this state follow the final judgment as brought before us in vs. 11-15 of the previous chapter?—I am compelled to take the affirmative by the following considerations.—(1.) The consecutive order of the visions naturally demands it. We have had the Millennium; then the last rallying of Satan's hosts and their destruction; then the "great white throne" of final judgment with the resurrection of all the dead immediately preceding and the wicked sent to their eternal destiny following:—so that now it only remains to unfold much more in detail the eternal home and state of the righteous. That this should be given much more fully than the corresponding doom of the wicked is legitimately in harmony with the moral purpose of the whole book. There is every reason to assume that this is precisely the order of succession in these stupendous events which close up the moral history of our race as related to this earthly life and its corresponding future.—(2.) The first verse alludes definitely to the passing away of the first heaven and the first earth and indicates that these new scenes come upon the great stage of action subsequently, i. e., after the old earth and heavens are gone. No rational sense can be given to this language save by assuming that we are now borne onward to the state beyond the resurrection and the final judgment. The very intent of this clause—"for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away"must have been to locate these new scenes beyond and subsequent to those before described.—(3.) All the features of this new state as here given represent it as the consummation of final retribution for all the moral good and moral evil of our present world. The righteous are shown in their eternal reward; the wicked in theirs.—(4.) No objection lies against this view of the passage on the ground that the symbols and imagery are borrowed from things earthly—largely from Old Testament descriptions of the gospel age of the worldin general, from Jewish conceptions of the holy city as the dwelling place of Israel's God. If any thing positive is to be said of the ultimate heavenly world it must by the laws of the sternest necessity be put in symbolic language, and these symbols must be drawn from things with which we are familiar. Otherwise all possible illustration is precluded. All positive conceptions of heaven must be built upon our actual conceptions of things earthly. Suppose an effort to evade this necessity. For example, suppose that the words used are in the dialect of heaven and not the dialect of earth; the figures and symbols used for illustration are borrowed from the scenery of the planet Saturn and from the great facts in the history of that planet. How much wiser should any of us be for such a revelation?I have said, "all positive conceptions of heaven," for my argument does not look specially to those negative conceptions of the heavenly state which the Scriptures readily give us. It is easy to say of heaven."No night there;" no tears there; no sorrow there; no sin there; nothing whatsoever that worketh abomination or maketh a lie: "no more sea," etc. Such negations of the ills of our present state come home at once to our souls, impressed by our bitter experience of life's conflicts and woes, of its griefs and tears; and we feel that by these points of the description, we have learned something definite about heaven. And we have. But heaven is more than a system of negations. It is more than earth with these ills of earth taken out. Hence we naturally long to know something beyond these negative points. The symbolism of this chapter is an effort to teach us something more—an effort which by the demands of a stringent necessity seeks to build up a positive heaven upon the illustrations afforded us in the scriptural views of the earthly Zion. The point of my argument here is that this resort to the earthly Zion for symbols and illustrations with which to lift our thought to the heavenly world ought not to prejudice or in any way damage our doctrine that these scenes do set forth the real heaven that lies beyond the final judgment.—The thoughtful reader will notice that this argument has become incidentally (and I may say unintentionally) an exegesis of the chapter, giving in the main the clew to its just interpretation.

1. And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

The "heavens" here spoken of, both the "first" which passed away and the "new" which comes into its place, should obviously be interpreted of the lower, the visible heavens, and not of the higher one, the glory of which is the central throne of the Infinite God. There is no reason for supposing that this higher heaven "fled away" before the presence of him who sat on the great white throne of judgment (20: 11). The lower and mundane heaven and this only can be thought of in these passages.—The phrase—"new heaven and new earth"—comes by imitation or allusion from Isa. 51: 16, and 65 : 17-25, and 66: 22. There they represent the beneficent moral changes wrought in our world by the gospel, with special reference to the gospel millennial age, as the reader will see by careful attention to those passages in their connection. See my Notes upon them. But here these terms are transferred to the new order of things and to the new worlds that spring into being or order after the final judgment. This new heaven and new earth bear a sense compared with that in Isaiah, higher by far, yet analogous. I see no necessity for holding the words to precisely the same ideas, i. e., to represent here the millennial rather than the post-resurrection state.—"No more sea." In some of its aspects the sea symbolizes things sublime, vast, and grand; but in the more common Hebrew usage, whatever is agitated, changeful, full of unrest, with often a strong moral shading of the guilty rebellion and unrest of sin. Recurring to the symbolism of this book, we may well notice that the Seven-headed, ten-horned beast (13: 1) "rose up out of the sea." Hence the passage before as suggests the grateful assurance that in this new heavenly state there shall be no more such sea—the home of dragons and of savage terrible beasts.—Farther back, in the visions shown to Daniel (7: 2, 3) "the four winds of heaven strove upon the great sea, and four great beasts came up from the sea," etc.; and in yet more ancient times the sea was a symbol of ungoverned self-will, recklessly working ruin and demanding to be firmly curbed in; for Job (7: 12) asks—"Am I a sea or a whale that thou settest a watch over me?" Isaiah (51: 20) makes fit and forcible use of this symbol: "The wicked are like the troubled sea when it can not rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt;" and Luke (21: 25) draws a vivid picture of the distress of guilty nations, trembling under the impending judgments of the Almighty, in the words—"the sea and the waves roaring." With these symbols before us we may readily understand why in this new heaven and earth "there shall be no more sea."

2. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

This grand conception—a vast city let down from the highest heaven—should be thought of as ideal rather than actual—a thing of symbol rather than of reality. Jerusalem—a name dear above all other names to the ancient saints—dear because it was the city where God dwelt with his people and where all the hallowed associations of his presence and worship clustered together, became the fitting symbol for the new heavenly state. Remarkably, it appears here in forms of perfect beauty; even as the bride adorned for her husband in the holy scenes of marriage. This comparison appears again (vs. 9, 10)—the city in its virgin attire, arrayed for that one hour most eventful of her life, where taste, adornment, and beauty are more in place than ever elsewhere. The reader will notice that this conception is essentially the same which we have in the Song of Solomon and which appears in various forms throughout the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers—the church washed from her sins, clothed in white, her loving heart given in virgin simplicity and purity to her glorious Husband, her Jesus—at once both Lover, Lord, and King. This symbol fitly gives us the grand consummation of the heavenly state. What could present it more beautifully or more appropriately?—In this verse the most ancient manuscripts omit the word "John."

3. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

4. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Of course the figure, "tabernacle of God," comes from Jewish history—the holy tent in which God dwelt among men in his visible glory. Here it witnesses to us that the glory and blessedness of the future heavenly world are in the manifestations of God's Presence with his people. Nearer to them than ever before, manifesting his presence and his love in modes and forms which our low earthly thought can by no means reach, he does however show that the chief element which makes that state a pure and perfect heaven is precisely this—that God is so perfectly with his people, so truly and gloriously their God. And such a God! So great, so good, so kind to them, so glorious in every manifestation! What is said here is remarkably personal in its bearings upon his people "shall wipe away every tear;" shall cause that there be no more death or pain;—all those "former things" that made this lower world so full of trial and sadness, passed forever away!—In the first clause of v. 3 the better reading gives us "out of the throne" instead of "out of heaven." In sense this correction makes the idea more specific. The voice comes not merely from heaven in general, but from its infinite throne, i. e., from the very lips of him who sat thereon.

5. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

Probation and mortality impressed themselves upon the former world and shaped every feature of the divine administration—every element in the character of the state itself. In this new world probation gives place to retribution and "this mortal puts on immortality." Therefore naturally all things become new. Will it not be a wondrous change?—Pausing in the process of the vision as if to impress more deeply this great fact of a momentous change from this state to that, he said to the revelator, Write; for here are great truths; "these words are faithful and true;" most reliable and full of thrilling significance.—The improved reading gives the last two words in this order—"faithful and true."

6. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.

This emphatic, "It is done!" appears (16: 17) as spoken by a great voice from the temple of heaven when the seventh angel sounded and great Babylon fell! Its essential thought is consummation—the finishing of the grand drama of earth, the rounding up to completion of the great scheme of human salvation.—In the middle and last clauses of the verse the relation of the ideas is signally beautiful. I am the Great Author and the Great Finisher of this scheme of salvation; and the central feature of the whole scheme is this—The water of life free to every thirsty soul! To all who will be blessed, blessings beyond measure rich and glorious!

7. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.

The reading which stands in the English margin is now generally accepted on the credit of the best manuscripts; not "all things" but these things—the things now under consideration. The last clause is expressive beyond all other language possible "I will be a God to him; he shall be a son to me." What could creature ask more or better of his glorious Creator?

8. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolators, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

The blessedness of such sonship is shown yet more forcibly in its contrast with the doom of the ungodly; therefore once and once only in this chapter our minds are directed to the case of those who would not have the waters of life and would not be the dutiful sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty.—The specifications here come naturally from the types of wickedness then most common and patent in the circumstances of the times. The "fearful" who shrink before the dangers of persecution and deny their Lord; the "unbelieving" who had no faith in God or in his word; the "abominable" whose vices had made them loathsome to God and to all the good; "murderers," probably with allusion to the persecutors of the saints; "whoremongers," under the moral pollutions incident to idol worship and in idolatrous age; "sorcerers," playing into the devil's hands and doing his work; "idolaters," disowning the true God, and setting up false gods; and "all liars," co-operating with the father of lies in deceiving men away from the true God, into all wickedness;—these and such as these, loving sin and pollution and committing themselves to utter rebellion against the true God—shall have their part in the lake of fire—the second death.

9. And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb's wife.

From this point one of the chief revealing angels proceeds to give a more minute and full view of the new and glorious city. It will be noticed that this bride, the Lamb's wife, is identically the great city, symbolic of the future heavenly state. See note on v. 2.

10. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

11. Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;

12. And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:

13. On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.

14. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

The best authorities for the text give, instead of "that great city, the holy Jerusalem," only this—"The holy city Jerusalem." In v. 14 the word "twelve" is added before "names," thus; "and in them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb."—Of this "great and high mountain," it were inept to ask where it stood, as if we were forgetting that this is vision and not reality. It would be of little avail also to inquire where the "holy city" rested and had its location after it came down out of heaven. It is well for us that God has made no attempt to teach us celestial geography to the extent of locating the future heaven. Better far that he should teach us (as he does) what heaven is; what makes its blessedness; and who shall have welcome entrance there.—The first descriptive point is comprehensive and expressive—"having the glory of God." The manifestations of his presence constitute both its visible splendor and its essential blessedness to his people.—"And her light" [phoster"] "was like a most precious stone." This word "light" can not be the state opposed to darkness; nor has it precisely the sense of luster, effulgence, as one might suppose from its being compared with a precious stone; but (as the Greek word demands) it has the sense of luminary, of the source of heaven's light—its sun. This flamed and shone like a jasper stone, all refulgent and most beautiful.—That the twelve tribes of Israel figure so prominently in this description does honor to the place they filled in the ancient church. So of the twelve names of the twelve apostles. Their labors helped to lay the foundations of the Christian church amid immense labors and sufferings.

15. And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof.

16. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.

17. And he measured the wall thereof, a hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.

In v. 15 the best textual authorities add the words "for a measure," thus: "had for a measure a golden reed," etc.—The passage imitates Ezek. 40: 1. and also Zech. 2: 1. The same thing appeared Rev. 11: 1. The process of measuring it before the eyes of John would give him a more impressive sense of its vastness and glory.—The perfect symmetry is a special point. Remarkably the height of its walls is the same as their length and their breadth. This gives the impression not only of perfect symmetry but of unsurpassed magnificence—the obvious purpose of this representation.

18. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.

19. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;

20. The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.

21. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.

All the resources of things splendid, beautiful, rare and costly, seem to be drawn upon and exhausted in this description of the heavenly city. As in the building age of Solomon, silver was of small account and gold was every-where, so here the city was pure gold and even the streets of the city.—This word "streets" means however not merely the traveled roads, but the broad places—the public squares and grounds not covered with buildings.—Of the reality which corresponds with this wealth of imagery, what can we know as yet? In general we are taught that Jesus whose are the wealth and the glory of the universe will spare no cost in fitting up the mansions of heaven for his eternal abode with his redeemed people.

22. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.

23. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.

That no temple is there shows that it rises high above the earthly Jerusalem in which the temple was the pre-eminent glory. That it needs not the sun or the moon for its light testifies in like manner that its glory far transcends the glory of earth. It is every thing to that world that God and the Lamb are there!—are there in such revelations of their glory and in such relations to their redeemed sons and daughters as language and symbols strive in vain to set forth.

24. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it.

25. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.

26. And they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it.

The more approved rending of the text omits—"of them which are saved," giving us only—"The nations shall walk in the light of it"—in language imitating the prophetic portrayal of millennial times, e. g., Isa. 2: 3, "Many people [nations] shall go and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord," . . "we will walk in his paths," etc. That "the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it" imitates the thought of Isa. 60: 11. "Thy gates shall be open continually that men may bring unto thee the wealth of the Gentiles," etc.—The shutting of city gates by night signifies more or less of danger—the possibility of a night assault or of some undesirable intruder. But here we have magnificent gates, yet no danger—no need of their being even shut! "No night there!"

27. And there shall in nowise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.

The better authorities for the text give us, instead of "defileth" [koinoun] the word for common [koinon] in the sense of unclean.—The meaning of the passage is not materially affected by the change. No impure thing is there. The men of impure heart and life have no place in that city. Only the ransomed, only those whose religion has made them personally holy, heartily true to God, wholly his by loving and absolute consecration, submission, trust, worship—such only are there. On no other point are these revelations of the great eternal future more positive and decisive than in this—the stringent separation of all human souls into two great comprehensive classes according to character, and the gathering of all the pure and holy into the one place, the heavenly city; but all the impure and unsanctified into the lake of fire.

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