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Christianity affirms the material order. In creation God made the physical world (Gen. 1) and man with a tangible body (Gen. 2:7). In redemption God effects the incarnation of Christ (Heb. 2:14) and His physical resurrection (Luke 24:39). We should not be surprised, then, that even in the consummation we will once again inhabit physical bodies (John 5:28–29) in a material environment (2 Peter 3:13). God has created us as men, not angels. As redeemed vessels of mercy, we will inherit a glorious, perfect, physical realm when God refashions the world in the new heavens and new earth.
We find the fullest explanation of the glory of the consummate new creation in Revelation 21–22. But we cannot simply leap to the closing chapters of the Bible and expect to understand them properly. The book of Revelation is the capstone of prophecy, not the foundation stone. Without adequate preparation for interpreting it, Revelation can become a stumbling stone.
New Creation Anticipation
We must first recognize the biblical principle of gradualism: God generally works His will gradualistically over time rather than catastrophically all at once. We see this in Israel’s incremental conquest of the Promised Land (Exod. 23:29–30; Deut. 7:22), in God’s unfolding of His revelation in history (Isa. 28:10; Heb. 1:1–2), in the progress of redemption in time (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 4:4), and in the expansion of Christ’s kingdom to the end (Isa. 9:6–7; Mark 4:26–32).
This principle of gradualism gives rise to the “now but not yet” principle in eschatology. For instance, our Lord established His kingdom in the first century. Not only did He declare “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), but He stated quite clearly that “if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). Yet He also taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). So then, the kingdom is present, yet it also is to come; it is now, but not yet.
The same is true of our own resurrection. Christ teaches us about a spiritual resurrection that is present (“now”) and which is directly linked to a physical resurrection to come (“not yet”): “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live …. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:25, 28–29).
We also see this principle at work in Christ’s subduing His enemies, which is in one sense accomplished now (1 Peter 3:22) but in its ultimate sense is not yet (Heb. 10:13).
In the same way, God unfolds the new creation in stages. The new creation is now with us, for “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Yet we are awaiting its final, corporeal establishment: “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Isaiah prophesied the church age using dramatic new creation language: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa. 65:17).
This clearly was not speaking directly of the consummate, eternal order, for it still experiences birth, death, and sin at work (Isa. 65:20).
Thus, in the kingdom established by Christ in the first century we find the new creation order in spiritual form, anticipating its objective climax at the end of history. Consequently, the new heavens and new earth presently exist within the bosom of the church. Just as Scripture links the present spiritual and future physical resurrections, so also it links the present spiritual and the future physical new creation. Therefore, we can learn what the consummated order will be like by reflecting on the present spiritual realities already at work, realities which anticipate the perfected consummate order.
New Creation Consummation
We must carefully establish these principles before engaging in seeking to understand the nature of the consummate order for an important reason: Most of what we know from God’s Word about the eternal order is by extension from the present order.
We discover indirectly the fullest insights from God regarding the final new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21 and 22. This passage opens with words clearly drawn from Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the new covenant kingdom-church: “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” (Rev. 21:1; Isa. 65:17). We know that John is here speaking directly of the present order established in principle in Christianity because he concludes this vision noting, “And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place .…’ And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’” (Rev. 22:6, 10). The time was near to John nineteen hundred years ago.
Speaking directly of the eternal order to come after a long time (2 Peter 3:3–9), Peter points to the radical transformation of the present world that God will effect at Christ’s return: “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed …. The heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But, according to His promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:10–13).
The ideal realities that Revelation 21 and 22 portray in principle in Christianity may easily be extrapolated to and objectified in the consummate order — for that is the ultimate source from which God draws anyway (Heb. 8:5; 9:24). We can now survey these characteristics in Revelation 21 and 22 directly applying them to our final state. Obviously human words and images strain to express our eternal condition, but they do provide glorious hints of its majesty.
In the consummate new creation, the present fallen order passes away (21:1, 5) as the heavenly pattern comes down out of heaven from God to mold the material new earth (21:2, 10b). Absolute peace prevails as all discord vanishes; for there is no raging sea, which is an image of tumult and discord (21:1b; see Isa. 57:20). This provides final resolution to our longstanding prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Indeed, evil men are banished altogether (Rev. 21:27; 22:23) so that “the gates of the city” never need closing (21:25). We will be fully and forever in the accepting presence of God and of Christ (21:3, 22–23; 22:3–4), living as Adam before the Fall (Gen. 3:8a).
In this glorious estate, sorrow and death no longer exist (21:4; 22:3a); for God nourishes and sustains us with perfect and abundant life (21:6; 22:1–3). As resurrected, corporeal creatures we are finally, fully, and forever adopted as the sons of God, receiving our promised eternal inheritance (21:7; Rom. 8:18–25). Our physical environment will be dazzling in glory and unimaginable in its grandeur (21:11, 18–21), being bathed by the very glory of God (21:23; 22:5). Our estate will enjoy the absolute stability (“foundations”) and security (“walls”) of God’s protection (21:12–17), where we are s
afe and secure from all alarms. Our eternal habitation will be abundant in scope and size (21:16), including vast multitudes (21:24–26).
With universal harmony and righteousness existing in the new earth, the redeemed will engage in cultural pursuits, just as God intended for Adam (Gen. 1:28; 2:15, 19). These collaborative pursuits will include even national distinctives: “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it …. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it” (21:24, 26–27). That we will be organized as “nations” involving “kings” indicates that cultural variety and governmental endeavors continue. These, of course, will be without sin, for we will “walk by its light” and bring in “nothing unclean.”
And the bringing in of our “glory” strongly suggests that the earthly knowledge we gain in our present temporal labors will be useful and actually employed to the glory of God in the new world (as also suggested in the Parable of the Talents, Matt. 25:13–30). Indeed, John’s vision is based on Isaiah 60:11: “Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations, with their kings led in procession.” The earthly cultural wealth (experiences, skills, knowledge) of the nations will neither be dismissed nor fogotten, buteployed in the eternal world — for “their deeds follow them” (Rev. 14:13).
God intentionally created us as physical beings with bodies adapted to a material environment, beginning with the creation of unfallen Adam. At the last day we will be raised bodily from the dead (John 5:28–29; 1 Cor. 15:12–25). In our eternal estate we will inhabit a purified, refashioned earth — something of a new Eden (Rev. 2:7; 22:2), but with no prospect of failure (as was inherent in Eden, Gen. 2:17). Truly, “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever” (Matt. 6:13 nasb). Indeed just as surely we have presently received the Holy Spirit “as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:14).