Philip Edgcumbe Hughes

 

THE NEW HEAVEN AND THE NEW EARTH


There is, however, another way of understanding the significance of Ezekiel’s temple vision which is in harmony with the context of the millennial passage in Revelation 20 and, indeed, with the principles by which the apostolic writers interpret the ancient prophecies elsewhere in the New Testament. Ezekiel and Revelation have this in common, too, that they are both apocalyptic writings in which particular visions are recorded. But we may go further and state that in many respects the book of Revelation provides a key to the understanding of the prophecy of Ezekiel. This we shall now hope to demonstrate.

First, the reference to Gog and Magog in Revelation 20:7ff. is taken over directly from Ezekiel (chs. 38 and 39). John describes this part of his vision in the following terms:

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them.

It is plain that this final act of defiance takes place in the “little period” (Rev. 20:3) when Satan is unloosed at the conclusion of the thousand years and resumes his activity as the deceiver of the nations, and that it is immediately followed by the judgment of the great white throne and the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 20:11ff.; 21:1ff.). In the vision of Ezekiel the insurrection of Gog and Magog, upon whose hosts the destruction of “torrential rain and hailstones, fire and brimstone” is sent, is followed by the vision of the new temple and the new city. From this sequence of events it is only reasonable to conclude that (in John’s mind at least) the temple and city of Ezekiel have a close correspondence with the new heaven and the new earth of the Revelation. Premillennialists, however, disregard the significance of this sequence in Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Secondly, as in Ezekiel so also in the Revelation the seer is shown the city by an angel who has a measuring rod with which he measures the city’s dimensions (Ezek. 40:3; 48:15ff.; Rev. 21:15). The detailed measurements indicate the preciseness of God’s designs and their execution; the shape of the city as a perfect square (indeed, in John’s Revelation, a perfect cube) signifies the perfection of these designs; and the magnitude of its proportions reflects the vastness of God’s grace and goodness (cf. Rev. 7:9; 21:24-26). The correspondence is further confirmed by the fact that in both visions the city has twelve gates, three on each of the four sides, and that the twelve gates are named after the twelve tribes of Israel (Ezek. 48:30ff.; Rev. 21:12f.).

Thirdly, it should be remarked that as in Ezekiel the temple is not in the city so also John says: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty, even the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).

Fourthly, the abundant river of water which Ezekiel sees flowing from the temple of God and bringing life wherever it goes, and on whose banks grow trees bearing fruit every month and unfading leaves for food and healing (Ezek. 47:1ff.), is beautifully matched and fulfilled by the vision given to John, who writes:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1f.).

These prophecies, then, are descriptive of the state of blessedness which will prevail universally and everlastingly in the new heaven and the new earth, following the final destruction of Satan and his followers. The conception of “the new heaven and the new earth” denotes the renewal of God’s creation and the fulfilment of the purpose for which God brought the created order into being. “Heaven and earth” as a designation of the totality of creation is an echo of the opening words of the book of Genesis, where we read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Furthermore, it should be noticed that the glorious and eternal future that is envisaged includes the earth. It is not an ethereal or nebulous future that is promised to God’s people; for “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1), and God did not make all things in order to watch them end in destruction and futility. That is why Paul speaks of the creation, at present “subjected to futility,” as “waiting with eager longing” for the day when “it will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:18-21). In the transcendental sphere also the Lord God is praised as worthy to receive glory and honor and power on the ground that he is the Creator of all things and that it was by his will that they were brought into existence (Rev. 4:11).

The glorious future promised to God’s people, therefore, is a glorious future also for the whole created order — of which, let us not forget, man is a part, indeed the crowning part. Just as the fall of man brought a curse upon the rest of creation, so also the exaltation of man to his true destiny in Christ will mean the restoration of the whole order of creation to the perfection with which it was marked when it issued from the hand of God. This is the significance of “the new heaven and the new earth,” over which the divine lordship will be not be forced and superficial but universally welcome and thorough, and not for a thousand years but for evermore. As the conclusion of the book of the Revelation so plainly shows, it is with the return of Christ to judge the world, and to bring in that eternal age of blessedness for which the whole creation yearns, that the prophecy of Isaiah concerning a new heaven and a new earth, in which the wolf dwells with the lamb and the leopard with the kid and none shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain because “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” will find its everlasting fulfilment (Is. 65:17ff.; 11:6ff.; cf. Hab. 2:14).

Meanwhile in this age of the Gospel the power of that kingdom and the reality of that blessedness are tasted within the fellowship of the redeemed as they “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus,” their gaze fixed on “the day of Jesus Christ,” that great day when God will bring to completion that good work he has begun in them (Phil. 3:14; 1:6). On that day all God’s covenant promises will be brought to full and everlasting fruition, in accordance with the proclamation from the throne which John heard in his vision:

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3f.).

No longer cut off from the tree of life and from the river of the water of life, and no longer excluded from the presence and the blessing of God (Gen. 2:9f.; 3:24), the curse which man’s sin brought on the world will be fully removed, never to return:

There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it [“the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” Heb. 12:22], and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22: 3ff.)

This is our indescribably wonderful heritage in Christ Jesus, and it is toward this glorious consummation that this present age is moving — this age of the Gospel in which the Holy Spirit is preparing the church of those who have been cleansed and sanctified to be presented to Christ in glory as his bride, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, . . . holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). Until the Bridegroom comes, this is still the age of gospel invitation, in which “the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come,’ ” and he who is athirst is urged to drink the water of life freely (Rev. 22:17), and in which those who love and long for the Bridegroom’s appearing hear his words of reassurance, “Surely I am coming soon,” and respond with all their hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).


 Author

 Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God,  and Confirmation in the Church Today.


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