Rev. 21:1-8 presumably follows the events of 20:11-15. In 20:11 heaven and earth fled from God’s presence to make way for a new heaven and a new earth which are realized in 21:1.
In the final two chapters of the book the perfected believers can be contrasted with the imperfect believers of chs. 2-3 and the new Jerusalem can be contrasted with the city of Babylon. “The purpose of the contrasts with the sins of the church and with Babylon, and the ultimate purpose of the entire segment, is to exhort believers in the present to persevere through temptations to compromise, so that they may participate in the consummated glory of the church” (Beale 1039).
The awesomeness of the new heaven and new earth stretch the limits of human vocabulary. As in earlier passages, it is not clear how literal to take each part of the vision.
Notes (NET Translation)
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more.
A new heaven and new earth are prophesied in a number of places (e.g., Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13). The term “new” (kainos) emphasizes a qualitative newness. Verse 5 indicates this is a renewal or transformation of the old creation. The first heaven and earth passed away in Rev. 20:11.
The passing away of the old world is also described in the statement that “the sea will not be any longer.” Why is the sea among those parts of creation singled out as no longer existing? Crucial to answering this question is the correct identification of the sea. Usage elsewhere in the Apocalypse suggests various identifications: (1) the origin of cosmic evil (especially in the light of OT background; so 4:6; 12:18; 13:1; 15:2), (2) the unbelieving, rebellious nations who cause tribulation for God’s people (12:18; 13:1; Isa. 57:20; cf. Rev. 17:2, 6), (3) the place of the dead (20:13), (4) the primary location of the world’s idolatrous trade activity (18:10–19), (5) a literal body of water, sometimes mentioned together with “the earth,” used as a synecdoche in which the sea as a part of the old creation represents the totality of it (5:13; 7:1–3; 8:8–9; 10:2, 5–6, 8; 14:7; 16:3 [?]).
The use here probably summarizes how all these various nuances of “sea” throughout the book relate to the new creation. Therefore, it encompasses all five meanings. That is, when the new creation comes there will no longer be any threat from Satan because he will have been permanently judged and excluded from the new creation. Nor will there be any threat from rebellious nations, since they will have suffered the same fate as Satan. Neither will there be death ever again in the new world, so that there is no room for the sea as the place of the dead. There also will be no more idolatrous trade practice using the sea as its main avenue. Even the perception of the literal sea as a murky, unruly part of God’s creation is no longer appropriate in the new cosmos, since the new creation is to be characterized by peace. Literal seas separate nation from nation, and they separated John from his beloved churches, but in the new creation such a separation can be no more, since all are in close fellowship with one another and with God (e.g., 21:22–26). (Beale 1041–1042)
2 And I saw the holy city – the new Jerusalem – descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband.
The new Jerusalem is both a place and a people (Rev. 11:2; 20:9; 21:7-10, 13-14, 24, 26). Its descent means that heaven and earth are no longer separated. The faithful in Philadelphia were promised to be inscribed with the name of the new Jerusalem (3:12). The people of God were described as the bride of the Lamb (19:7-8). The new Jerusalem is a bride while Babylon was a harlot.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.
Just as the old Jerusalem, with its temple, was a place where God dwelled, so too is the new Jerusalem in a more perfect way. God dwelling with his people is the fulfillment of a number of biblical passages (Ex. 29:45; Lev. 26:11-12; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 37:26-28; 43:7-9; Zech. 2:10-11; 8:8). The Greek literally refers to “peoples” (plural), perhaps to emphasize that the redeemed will come from all over the earth. The presence of God and the fellowship between God and believers is the primary characteristic of the new Jerusalem.
4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.”
Wiping away every tear echoes Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:17. The abolition of death reiterates Isa. 25:8 and the abolition of mourning, crying, and pain recalls Isa. 35:10; 51:11.
Every reader of this commentary should think of all they have gone through, all the illness and suffering and loss and incredible sorrows that are always part of life in this sin-sick world. Not only does creation “groan” in the midst of its infirmities, but we also “groan inwardly as we await our adoption as God’s children, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22–23). John is now describing that time when the “redemption of our bodies” will have been accomplished. Isaiah also pointed forward to this: “everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (51:11; 65:19). This is the universal hope that has comforted the saints down through the ages. Death was the primary stepchild of sin (Rom. 5:12; James 1:15), and it is always presented in Scripture as a malignant force tormenting humankind. But Death, the last enemy, has itself been destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26; Rev. 20:14), and all its precursors (mourning, crying, and pain) have gone with it. (Osborne 735)
5 And the one seated on the throne said: “Look! I am making all things new!” Then he said to me, “Write it down, because these words are reliable and true.”
This voice is clearly God’s. The words “I am making all things new” echoes Isa. 43:19 (which speaks of the return of the exiles).
6 He also said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the one who is thirsty I will give water free of charge from the spring of the water of life.
“It is done” signals the completion of God’s purposes. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” recalls 1:8. God is not merely the first and last in time. He is the source and origin of all things as well as the goal and aim of all things. Water from a spring is refreshing and satisfying. Scripture often employs such imagery in depicting the desire for God (e.g., Ps. 36:9; 42:1; 63:1; Isa. 49:10; 55:1-5; Jer. 2:13; John 4:14).
7 The one who conquers will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
In the letters to the seven churches we learned that the overcomers will eat from the tree of life (2:7), not be hurt by the second death (2:11), be given hidden manna and a white stone (2:17), receive authority over the nations (2:26), not have their names blotted from the book of life (3:5), be a pillar in the temple of God (3:12), and sit with Christ on his throne (3:21). All this is the inheritance of those who remain constant in their faith during the period of final testing. (Mounce loc. 7020-7023)
Both men and women will be children of God (Rom. 8:14-17, 23). The promise to be a son to God alludes to 2 Sam. 7:14 (where it is spoken of David’s descendants).
8 But to the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.”
John reiterates that the unrighteous will be thrown into the lake of fire (19:20; 20:10, 14-15).
The list here is not, however, a general enumeration of sins but instead a specific list that draws together the sins of the book. Its purpose is to sum up the depravity of the unbelievers, and each term reflects sins mentioned elsewhere in the book (see Osborne 1993: 68–69). “Unbelief” describes the basic sin that led the nations to reject God’s overtures to bring them to repentance (so 9:20–21; 14:6–7; 16:8, 10–11). It also is the sin of the false teachers (cf. the contrast between the Pergamum believers [who “did not renounce faith in me”] and the heretics in 2:13–16). The “vile” or “abominable” acts are emphasized in 17:4–5 (the “abominations” of the great prostitute) and 21:27 (the “shameful” things not allowed in the New Jerusalem). “Murder” refers of course to the earth-dwellers who have killed the saints (6:9; 9:21; 13:7, 10, 15; 17:6; 20:4). A particularly telling example is 11:9, where the sinners refuse to bury the two witnesses and engage in an orgy of celebration over their bodies. “Sexual immorality” was part of the Nicolaitan cult (2:14, 20), was also practiced by the earth-dwellers (9:21; 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3, 9; 19:2), and was often linked with idolatry due to the frequent practice of ritual prostitution in Greco-Roman religion. “Sorcery” or magic was an essential part of the first-century world (see Acts 8:9–24; 13:8–11; 19:17–20) and is stressed in Rev. 9:21; 18:23; 22:15. “Idolatry” is one of the primary themes of the book, again beginning with the heretics (2:14, 20), and is at the heart of the sins of the nations (9:20; 22:15). It is a key aspect of the false religion established by the beast (13:4, 8, 12, 14–15; 19:20). Much of the material in Revelation grows out of the “imperial cult” at the end of the first century (see the introductions to the letters to Ephesus and Pergamum at 2:1–7 and 2:12–17, respectively), and idolatry was a major problem behind the book. “Liars” are often condemned (2:2; 3:9; 14:5; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10; 21:27; 22:15). They are the direct antithesis of God and Christ, who are characterized by “truth” (3:7, 14; 15:3; 16:7; 19:2, 11). Rissi (1972: 104 n. 168, following Lohmeyer) believes that the phrase here “and to all liars” makes this a summarizing formula linked to John 8:44, where we read that the devil has been a liar “from the beginning.” In this sense, lying is “a perversion of everything that is true and valid (opposite of v. 5).” Thus, this list summarizes the sins that send the unsaved to “the lake of fire, the second death” (on which see 19:20; 20:6).
But the first of the list (found only here), δειλοῖς (deilois, cowards), is worthy of special consideration. The δέ (de, but) that connects 21:7 with 21:8 should have its full adversative force and may well especially be contrasting ὁ νικῶν (“the conqueror”) with τοῖς δειλοῖς (“the cowards”). While the rest of the list describes the unchurched and wicked who were the enemies of Christianity, this first term probably describes those in the church who fail to persevere but give in to the pressures of the world. Whatever one’s position concerning the “eternal security” issue, these would be those who fit the description of passages like Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26–31; James 5:19–20; 2 Pet. 2:20–21; and 1 John 5:16, namely, those in the church who are overcome with sin and leave their “faith.” The reader is being asked to make a choice whether to “overcome” the pressure of the world and refuse to succumb to it or to be a “coward” and surrender to sin. Those who do so will join the unbelieving world in eternal damnation. (Osborne 740–742)
It is noteworthy that the new creation is what the righteous inherit (v 7), so that unrighteous false Christians and the non-Christian world in general do not reside within the borders of the new cosmos. 21:1–22:5 shows that the blessing of God’s presence permeates the entire new creation, whereas 21:8 and 27 indicate that God’s judgment is revealed outside the confines of the new world (see also 22:15). Even though “the second death” is a perfected punishment, those who suffer it do so outside the geography of the new universe, since, as we have already been told, “there will be no more death … nor pain” in the new order of things (21:4). In similar fashion we have been told that there will be “no more sea” in the new order; this figurative sea likely overlaps to some degree conceptually with “the lake … which is the second death,” so that the reality underlying the figurative lake of the second death must exist somewhere else, perhaps in a different dimension from that of the new creation. (Beale 1061)
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.