This pericope is a continuation or extension of last week’s reading from Revelation 7. As we’ve seen there and in other readings from Revelation, the preacher must make the interpretive decision about perspective. In Revelation 7, I suggested that St. John is not only seeing the church triumphant, but also the saints who even now gather around the throne of Christ’s altar in the Holy Liturgy. Revelation 7 reveals what the church looks like in all times and in all places. A sermon on Revelation 21 will also aim at revealing what the naked eye cannot see. As Luther’s powerful baptismal hymn says (my translation of stanza 7 without rhyme): “The eye alone the water sees, as men the water pour; / but faith, in the Spirit, comprehends the power of Jesus’ blood; / before faith flows a crimson flood colored with Christ’s own blood that heals all illnesses inherited from Adam, and all those we’ve caused for ourselves.” This would be a good opportunity in your Easter preaching to contrast what the eye sees and what faith sees.
So, what is St. John seeing in the Spirit? “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” But what is he seeing with the eye? He seems to be seeing, to repeat what wrote last week, the church of all times and places gathered around the lamb at earthly altars and in heaven. The eye sees tired and happy people, young and old, hurt and sometimes hurtful, overwhelmed and hopeful people coming before the Lamb to receive from Him living water, victory, and sonship. John sees heaven on earth and earth in heaven. Wherever Christ is, whether here or there, tears are being wiped away. Christ does it here in time and there forever in eternity. We are dealing with what is by faith and what will be by sight at the resurrection of all flesh. Surely in the Spirit faith sees the church at the consummation of all things in Christ already. But the eye is faced with the not-yet of their pilgrimage. Your sermon will bring comfort to those who long to be with Christ, which, we would all agree, is far better. They will need to hear that the Christ they long for is with them now to lead them safely home, to a better country.
All that, however, should not cause us to overlook the richness of John’s vision and how he leads us to Christ and the promise of the Consummation by way of the Old Testament. John sees our eschatological hope for the people of God, but he sees it through the lens of the prophets, especially the Prophet Isaiah in chapters 60-66: for the prophecy of a new heavens and a new earth (v. 1), see Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; for the bride and bridegroom imagery (v. 2), see Isaiah 61:10 and the surrounding context. I recommend working through the various cross-references given in the margin of your Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. The eschatological hope for which the prophets waited was fulfilled not only in the end of the world, but at the end of the First Age and in the inauguration of the Messianic Age. The church calls the Messianic Age the end times. The distinction is not necessarily between earth and heaven, but Law and Gospel. Because Christ has come, we are living in the end of all things. Christ reigns now and will forever, though for a while He remains unseen to earthly eyes.
The prophets, it must be remembered, were not waiting for one moment in salvation history but for the entire salvation of the world to be set in motion and brought to an end (fulfilled and accomplished) in the Messiah and the Age of His eternal reign. All this points us to the end of all things in Christ, and yet all things past and present and future point to Christ who was born “at the fullness of time.” Scripture allows the prophetic voices and the fulfillment of their prophecies to dance together in a marvelous way. Verse 3, for example, seems to be speaking of Christ’s incarnation, even while it could be a reference to His care for Israel or the Final Consummation. Matthew also can’t decide whether the death of Christ and His resurrection were one event or two. For Matthew, Christ’s death shook the earth and opened graves and after the resurrection they came out and went (notice the parallel with Rev. 21:2) “into the holy city,” as if it were the day of resurrection. It was this event, as one event, that caused the centurion and others to confess, “Truly this was the Son of God!” It makes me think that the dead being raised and going into the holy city, though historically true as a foretaste of what’s to come, became code among Christians for being spiritually raised in baptism and brought into the Holy Church, the Heavenly Jerusalem or the Holy City where Christ Himself dwells (tabernacles) forever. If that is the case, then the reference to living water and the inheritance of sonship in verse 7 points us to the way things are now in Christ from whose body, the church, flows living water.
Rather than preach that we ought to look forward to heaven to have Christ, you can preach from this text that He is with us now and will be forever. And rather than preach that it is enough to have Him now, so why think about a future life? the promise that Christ is with us will by God’s grace makes us desire even more for the veil to be lifted and the City of God to descend.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Revelation 21:1-7.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Revelation 21:1-6.