Some key issues in Revelation

1) On Church Polity
What is noteworthy immediately and throughout the letters is that they are addressed to the angels, and through them the entire church not simply its leaders. It affirms a certain congregationalism. Jesus holds the entire fellowship accountable for the faithfulness of any given church and calls all to be active in seeking its reform. Such things cannot simply be left to the leaders.
        But we should also note that although this responsibility may extend to all churches that are linked together and comprise "the church" in any city or area, there is no mention of individual fellowships being responsible for the faithfulness of churches elsewhere in the world. Yet as the letter was written to seven, they were clearly aware of one-another. This is not to say they cannot care for or influence other churches (Rom 15v26), but they are not responsible for their faithfulness. Any wider responsibility on such matters fell to the apostles, as with John writing this letter - and perhaps by this time to regional Bishops (Tit 1v5).
        Ironically, it is therefore the localised or congregational nature of responsibility so affirmed by independent churches that shows the need of some form of episcopacy - and the responsibility that lies upon those who take up that role! Yet that episcopacy is not one that undermines the responsibility and authority of the congregation, but one that urges them to exercise it rightly with warnings of what might come if they don't. Indeed, though a Bishop may veto a bad appointment of an elder by refusing to commission them (Acts 6v6), I am unpersuaded that they have authority to prevent an appointment nor remove or discipline an elder that is in post, or a fellowship that is compromised. Rather, although they should be ready to publicly rebuke elders that sin before their congregation (1 Tim 5v19-20), they are to exhort the congregation to repent of any compromises they are party to and take responsibility for the situation. If the Bishop himself is seriously compromised, one presumes it is other Bishops that should discipline him. Yet where the Bishop remains compromised, congregations are called to refuse his ministry (2 John 10). These would be great letters for a Bishop to expound!
        Before considering the church in Ephesians itself we might also mention the roles of synods. Again, it would seem they have no authority to decide doctrine or practice, nor require changes or discipline. At most, they might discuss and decide matters they encourage fellowships to take note of and out into practice. The letter of Acts 15 comes from apostles amongst others so is more directive. Yet it still notes believers "would do well" to abide by what was commended (Acts 15v29).
        The point throughout is that the authority of the local congregation is to be protected, and that it is undermined when directive authority is placed over it other than in the ministry of Christ's word. The role of Bishops (and synods) is therefore to encourage, strengthen, advise - and urge fellowships to exercise the responsibility Christ has given them for their life together. Only with the consent of congregations then, may the Bishop lead it in certain matters like the collection of money for poorer churches etc. He cannot require it.
        All this makes Independency very much the most biblical polity, but that (1) shares a concern for all churches in its area with a history of basic gospel conviction, whatever their current compromises, and seeks to influence them for good where that is possible, (2) rejects a denominational focus on shared polity or top down decisions to promote practical partnership with any church if that doesn't undermine the gospel or impose things upon congregations without their consent, (3) recognises the need of regional overseers to conduct a regional role of strengthening, encouraging, advising and exhorting,  (4) ensures a high degree of gifting and commitment to a biblical and so evangelical doctrine and lifestyle in those who take on that role, (5) is ready through those overseers to serve all churches with a history of basic gospel conviction, whatever their current compromises, so long as they maintain a readiness to accept that oversight by considering the evangelical input of the overseer, (6) ensures its overseers do not act in a way that undermines local autonomy in doctrine and practice, or disregards any church that still contains believers that choose to welcome his oversight.
        The FIEC and GPs still have a place in developing practical gospel partnership. But what would be needed in addition is a distinct organisation or arm of one of those organisations that develops a network of regional overseers that churches could look to or even affiliate to. An interim might be in gospel partnerships agreeing that churches who cannot yet join the partnership can formally subscribe to the oversight of their directors - or better for keeping it manageable, their cluster chairs. The GPs are best set for this in already spanning denominations and by necessity therefore respecting the autonomy of the local church out of a desire not to conflict with denominational authority.

2) How Literal is the Picture of Heaven?

The question of course is over how literally we should take all this. The tabernacle was literal and spatial entity implying heaven is too. But the lampstands in heaven are clearly figurative suggesting we should see the altar and sea that way as well. Perhaps we can only be clear on what we see elsewhere. It is certainly a real place. The embodied Jesus is taken into heaven, and prepares a "place" for us there (Acts 1v11, Jn 14v2-3). So it is to be at home with him, and must be consciously experienced if better by far than life now. Every Christian would rather be here serving Christ that in soul-sleep (2 Cor 5v8, Phil 1v23). Jesus taught it is to be in a place of comfort with Abraham (Lk 16v22-25), Paul says he saw "paradise " (2 Cor 12v3), Hebrews promises a city (Heb 11v10, 12v22, 13v14), Stephen saw Jesus standing on God's right hand, and Hebrews 12 tells us this is where God and his Christ are worshipped by angels and the perfected spirits of God's people. Like a massive cruise-liner moored off the coast, heaven is a reality like the most wonderful garden-city where God reigns with Christ, that is inhabited by angels and continually filled by those who die in Christ. This implies it is a place where nature, culture, society and the things of day to day human life are enjoyed (cf. Is 60, Rev 21v22-27 describing the new Jerusalem when on earth). But it is a lesser glory than the final state where we will enjoy in resurrected bodies. It is to experience life together in worship and service of God, in anticipation and preparation for embarking into a renewed world where God and Christ will then set up their throne.
      Whether we should understand the New Jerusalem as a city-like experience in heaven is uncertain in the book of Revelation itself. It is certainly there before descending to earth. Yet although it could simply refer to the society of God's people, the language of Hebrews and it's continuity with the new Jerusalem in the new earth would suggest it is a spatial reality even if it's description in Revelation has figurative elements. And whereas heaven is now described as a temple, because it is where God is especially present and enthroned, when the New Jerusalem descends it is said to have no temple as God and the Lamb are the literal place of God's presence within it - having their throne there. In other words there will no longer be the need of a heaven as it was, for God and Christ will be especially present and enthroned on the renewed earth. This suggests that the temple-like realm of heaven that Revelation portrays with the saints before God, is currently within the new Jerusalem which is paradise. And if a spatial reality, on its descent it is quite possible the new Jerusalem may remain a section of the earth from which God, Christ and their people then reign, meaning that heaven as it was would have passed away. This may suggest the "sea" that is “no more” (21v1) is that which separated God from his creation.
     Intriguing here however, is that "a new heaven" is created with the new earth and the New Jerusalem seems to come out of it "from God." So it seems heaven is a larger realm and that a spiritual dimension to the universe will continue alongside the material. This may be the primary sphere of the unseen God and his angels, even though his special presence may somehow be displayed at his throne on earth with Jesus.
     Jesus' resurrection showed the promise of a new body is not figurative but just like those of this life yet more glorious. And Moses and Elijah showed the heavenly experience of bodies is somehow a foretaste of that final reality. This implies the same for the new earth and the new Jerusalem upon it, and the paradise and new Jerusalem within heaven as a foretaste of them - the paradise a garden and so more limited in scope in being confined to the city, and the city itself still awaiting completion in number. In every sense then we see the descriptions of heaven (and hell) as akin to the final state, though not yet its full reality.
     As for where heaven is, and how it can be all this if merely spiritual, we can only speculate. The presence of the embodied Jesus implies it is more than a virtual reality in the mind of God. And he is well able to transport our spirits at death to another part of the universe where things exist materially as they do here, but that can be seen and accessed as if adjacent. He is also well able to have these things exist in some kind of a parallel dimension. But exactly how this will all be is not revealed.

3) The Intermediate State

But can we learn anything here about our literal experience in the intermediate state? The appearances of Samuel, Moses and Elijah after death imply conscience existence (see also Lk 16v22). So just as 6v9 pictures the significance of the persecuted truly in heaven praying for justice, so this 7v9f. may picture the significance of a true praise that takes place there too. We don't know if the experience of time will be the same for us when removed from bodily existence - although one presumes it will be for Christ in his body as he governs space-time history. Nor do we know what else we might do in heaven as we await the activity of the new earth. Angels serve as well as sing. And our experience there is spoken of as "paradise" (Lk 23v43) and with the image of the city of Jerusalem. It could well be, therefore, that we experience heavenly societal life in a sort of paradise or paradise-city within which the things of Revelation are quite literally found, even before we receive our resurrection bodies and that society is established on a renewed earth. Certainly 20v6 portrays those there as exercising a priestly ministry (perhaps of caring for the environment as for God’s temple) and kingly ministry (it seems in sharing in Christ’s reign over history). The fact that unbelievers are pictured experiencing their final state in part, certainly supports the idea that heaven is a foretaste of new creation life (Lk 16v23, 2 Pet 4v9). Whatever the case, what we do know is that we will be there, it will be better by far as we will be with Christ (Phil 1v23), and part (probably the pinnacle) of our activity will be to join the worship of angels not just at the end as in Revelation 7, but throughout the church age (Heb 12v23).

4) The Structure and Purpose of the Book

The question that 8 verse 2 brings is a critical one in the book: Does what follows follow temporally or is it a recapitulation - another list of judgments that will span the church age? There is a similar pattern of 4 and 3 (8v13), and the emphasis on earth, sea and trees imply these are encompassed within seals 1-4 that were held back until the multitude were sealed (7v1). Yet if chronological, the sealing still protects the redeemed from them. And a number of immediate details do favour chronology over recapitulation. (1) It's the most natural reading. (2) v1 is bizarrely abrupt if it simply ends the build up to that point. In reality it breeds anticipation of what is to happen next. (3) Trumpets are a herald of victory and completion (cf. Matt 24v31, 1 Thess 4v16, 1 Cor 15v52) - although if covering the whole church age they do still make that point. But v5 alludes to Sinai, and there the trumpet heralded God arriving to meet with his people. (4) What follows seems a response to the prayers of the saints noted with seal 5 - the alternative being that the trials of the world today result from the prayers of God's people (although this may be implied by 11v5-6). (5) The judgments are much more consonant with an intensification of seal 6 than the others. (6) They cannot easily be pinned down to past history as seals 1-4 can. (7) Structurally the 7 seals stretch from the "in the Spirit" of 4v1-2 and that of 17v1-3. (8) So the 7 trumpets are played out once the scroll is opened by the 7th seal (10v1-11). (9) The trumpets are patterned on the plagues of Egypt which God's people were exempt from because of the blood of the Lamb, so these couldn't picture general tribulations of the church age, like the seals, that the redeemed endure too. (10) The judgments are similar to those marking the destruction of Babylon in chapter 18 that occurs just before the parousia. Having said all this, the detail of the judgments implies a period of time still to the end, so rather than being the final judgment itself they should probably be read as final precursors - the events resulting from opening the seventh seal, as with those resulting from the other 6. We’ll see that those that actually destroy Babylon are a more intense version.
     Further support for recapitulation is found in (11) Leviticus 26 as background. There, refusal to repent from idolatry brings further plagues in groups of 7. This implies we are learning that as humanity refuse to repent as history progresses, so their judgments will intensify as in the book. (12) The wording around the 7 bowls as the "last" plagues by which God's wrath is finished strongly suggests chronology (15v1, 16v17). (13) Their intensification from a third of the world to the whole world does too (8v7f, 16v1f), as does (14) their difference despite similarity. These are not the same judgments.
     All this is critical in understanding the book. Although chapters 1-5 relate to the period of the first century and chapter 6, 10-13 and 20 the tribulations throughout history, the rest of the book and so major focus is on the events just before, during and after Christ's return. In short, it's encouragement is that the trials and the battle with evil that all Christians will face are part of Christ's purpose and victory, and will soon end with the wicked receiving the justice warranted and the righteous their rest. God's people are therefore encouraged to persevere as in the letters of chapters 1-3.
     In terms of the various interpretative methodologies then, it is difficult to tie our view to one. Nevertheless we are not preterist in seeing the focus throughout as the first century - although there are elements. We are not classically historicist in charting stages through the church age - although we are told the general things to expect. However we are at least partly idealist in acknowledging the highly symbolic nature of the book means events can't generally be tied down historically - although some can. But more strictly, we are futurist in acknowledging the end is the focus, although not wholly so. Perhaps we should say we are a combination of these last two views.

5) The figurative language of Revelation

As so often, literal events become figures as the flood, exodus etc do in the poetry of the Psalms. Although such figures can be fulfilled literally too as Jesus 40 days in the desert and 3 days in the earth, Revelation is a highly symbolic vision, so we cannot assume that in the book unless it is explicit or confirmed by scripture of a less symbolic genre. What we need to consider are the literal truths these things point to, keeping an open mind as to whether or not they will have a more literal fulfilment. Nevertheless, elsewhere we read of heaven as paradise and of the new creation, and we see this hope as the whole trajectory of salvation history, so we can be confident in taking these things more literally.

6) What will happen when Christ returns?

A number of things seem clear. It will take place when the church seems as good as dead under persecution, although its members may well still seek to witness. 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks in a literal sense of hearing a command of Christ or an archangel, and a trumpet heralding victory and the end. With it Christ will come to end the persecution. He will be on a cloud, and probably come to the Mount of Olives, but in a way that is evident to all – no doubt by the environmental signs that will accompany it (Zech 14v4-5). With him will be the spirits of those who have died in faith, possibly residing in a descending city. They will be reunited with glorified resurrection bodies that will be seen to come up out of the ground to them. Believers alive at the time will then rise up and join them, having their bodies transformed into glorified bodies in a twinkling of an eye. It seems this will be followed by a massive earthquake with its source at the Mount of Olives that will kill a huge number. Many if not all those who remain may then repent – or at least acknowledge God in a non-salvific way.
     The chronology of what follows is somewhat unclear. Dead unbelievers will also be raised to join the unbelievers alive at the time. It seems they must then join believers for the judgment in heaven – or perhaps in the new Jerusalem where Christ’s throne is, as we are told that it is at this moment that the earth and sky (heaven) will pass away (Rev 20v11, cf. Matt 25v31). The sense is that Christ will somehow bring the created order as we know it to an end with fire. This may wholly destroy it, but the language of Revelation is figurative. So it may just decimate it. The meek will inherit this earth. Indeed, the fire on earth could result from the earthquake (20v9, 2 Pet 3v7, 10, 12, 2 Thess 1v7).
     Judgment will then take place overseen by Christ, but assisted by believers. For many the result will be certain, as those who have previously been in the inter-mediate state will already have experienced a foretaste of their fate. In some way that is evident to those there, the wicked will be condemned to an experience of hell that fits their deeds and the redeemed publicly acquitted by theirs as being those of faith in Christ. However long this might take, it could simply be done by a separation of the two groups (Matt 25v32). The revelation of our actual deeds is limited to their being seen in our ultimate destiny or the extent to which their results lasts into eternity (1 Cor 3v13-15). The note of more detailed revealing refers to revealing the gospel not our deeds (Matt 10v26-27, cf. Lk 12v2-3).
     In some way the condemned will then be sent to hell leaving the justified in the new Jerusalem. They may witness the re-creation of the new heaven and earth around them or simply find it has been done. Like Jesus’ resurrection body, they will be recognizable but more glorious. And marvelling at it all, God’s people, perhaps in the new Jerusalem itself, will descend to the new earth in great joy to live forevermore.

7) What is the beast?

We can summarise as follows: Arising from the sea under which was thought to be the abyss, the beast is demonically influenced. Indeed, he is in the image of Satan. Yet according to Daniel 7, we would expect both a conceptual and a human referent – a kingdom or principle of government, but taking prominence under a key ruler. The heads and horns therefore represent subsequent rulers that reflect the same kingdom or governing principle.
     So this beast spans the church age. Chapter 17 and 19 tell us it “was not” in John’s day, but would arise again at the end of the age. However, Babylon sits on the beast with all its heads and horns and so spans its appearance in human form at both ends of that period. The beast is therefore more than a human ruler. It represents the Satanic principle of idolatrous rule or governance that takes various expressions throughout history and in its various rulers, but particularly in a key Caesar of John’s day and a key ruler just before the end.
     This helps us understand the nature of the second beast, the false prophet. Here too we must see two ideas. First, is the Satanic principle of false religion or spirituality in its various expressions throughout history that causes people to essentially worship the rule expressed by the state, and second, particular rulers who lead people to worship the first beast in its human expression at the beginning and end of the church age.

8) The mystery of the beast

17v7-14 are critical to interpreting the book. Indeed v7 claims to reveal the mystery that has intrigued us to this point. 1) We see the beast is not simply a specific ruler but a kingdom or principle of anti-Christ type rule personified in a ruler that at that point had been expressed, was no longer, but would rise again at some future time - "about" in apocalyptic could imply a 1st century immediate fulfilment but now likely the prophetic "soon" that means "at any time" in history (as 22v7). The point is the beast parodies Christ's death and resurrection. 2) The beast's rising accompanies the release of the dragon at the end of history. That's the only way to read his rising from the bottomless pit and going to destruction in the light of 20v1-10, 12v7-17 and perhaps 13v3. 3) That means the Millennium must have started by John's day as then the beast "was not" - the amillennial view. 4) We must therefore read the book futuristically. But that doesn't make it irrelevant to the original readers. It means that those enduring persecution at any time in history can't presume it will be momentary. Rather they must be aware it could get even worse and so be ready to patiently endure whatever comes, knowing it is Christ's sovereign will, that he will be victorious, and that he will judge their persecutors. It also gives every generation a balanced view of the state. On one hand it may not be so Satanic if Satan remains cast down and the beast "is not." So believers can work in and with the state. On the other it may be under increasing Satanic control as the beast is "to come." So believers must be cautious, recognising the state's potential for idolatry, (resulting vice) and persecution, that they may be able to do little about. 5) The seven mountains of course point to Rome as perhaps the pattern of the end-time Satanic kingdom, but we are explicitly told the beast itself "is not" as John writes so cannot be Rome per se. Indeed, we're told the mountains signify kings as expressions of the beast's rule. 6) Five of those have fallen, one is and the last is yet to come. As the beast's initial appearance stems from Satan's anger in being cast down by Christ, the sixth who reigns in John's day is preceded by 5 who have appeared since Satan was vanquished and so were preceded in turn by the ruler who was the initial beast who by John's day "was not." But this still implies the current Emperor reflects the traits of the beast as Nero, Caligula and Domitian did - whichever reigned when John wrote. The symbolic 7 also stresses the initial time of the beast's war on the saints was almost over, as 6 have already come. 7) Verse 11 is surprising but helpful here. The 7 kings are heads of the beast, but we're now told of an eighth king that is the beast itself. Most likely this means the principle of anti-Christ rule will be personified in a certain king and perhaps kingdom that is similar to the other seven. In this context the ten kings of verse 12 will come at the same time and act in allegiance to this parody king of kings in effecting the final persecution. This makes the seventh king likely to be an Emperor about to reign in John's day.
     The point to the original readers is that the Roman Empire is Satanic, but their persecutions reflect the tail end of his influence even though they will continue for a short time under this coming Emperor. There will then be a time of lesser hostility as the gospel goes to the world, before Satan and a similar beastly kingdom arises again at the end of history. What is so helpful about this understanding is that it explains the allusions to Rome and the relevance of the book to the original readers without forcing a wholly preterist interpretation. The prostitute represents extreme ungodly society in its worldwide influence that then rested upon the Caesar's in the form of Rome but will one day rest on other rulers reflecting the same beastly origins and as the centre of a worldwide empire. This provokes thought as western society embraces behaviours last prevalent under the Roman Empire.
      Despite persecutions throughout church history to date then, it seems none are equivalent to the hostility towards God's people before and around the time of Christ - nor compared to that which will arise at the end. Jesus made just this point (Matt 24v21).

9) The beast and the prostitute

Put simply then, the beast on which the prostitute sits is a Caesar who had died by John's day, but whose kingdom still upheld the idolatry, immorality and hostility of Roman society through subsequent Caesars. And although such influence was almost at its end, the nature of the beast's rule will be manifest just before the return of Christ in and through another key ruler and other rulers who give him their allegiance. Moreover, because the prostitute sits on the beast not only with the 7 "Caesar" heads but these 10 "future" horns, she can't simply be equated with Rome. Rather she is the manifestation of ungodly society that took the most terrible form in that period of the Roman Empire as Satan raged against the church after being cast down, and one that will not be so fully expressed again until the time of the end. However, because the beast's authority spans the entire 42 months of the church age (13v5) we should understand the prostitute not as two societies at the two ends of the church age, but as the single entity that is ungodly society in all its forms throughout history, and always subject to lesser forms of beastly rule. As with the beast, we must think both of a principle and its particular expression at key times. There are therefore lessons here for Christians in every age, and especially when it feels the final events might be coming to pass.

10) The relationship between the 7s

It is striking that bowls 6 and 7 pick up similar events to seal 6 (6v12f) and trumpet 6 (9v13-21). This doesn't necessarily imply recapitulation, against which there are significant arguments (see comment on chapter 8). If the trumpets follow or are a subset of the seventh seal and the bowls of the seventh trumpet, this gives an explanation. The shaking of creation in seal 6 details the impending "end" in a general sense and so briefly sums and anticipates the last events more specifically detailed in the trumpets and bowls. Many of the trumpet judgments are therefore similar to the content of seal 6. They are cataclysmic, include the removal of a mountain, falling stars, darkened sun and tormented individuals. The parallels between the trumpets and bowls are more striking. The order is the same: the earth, sea, fresh water, heavenly lights, rule of the beast, battle from Euphrates, and then completion. However, the bowls being a more extreme form of the trumpets discounts recapitulation. They could run in parallel showing how each judgment that heralds the end will increase. But the sense of chronology is strong. And so it seems more likely that after demonic hoards kill a third of mankind (trumpet 6), with the blowing of trumpet 7 the trumpet judgments now already taking place will intensify as the bowls are poured out.
     The seals then detail the general (not specific) events of history up to the end. With the 7th opened the events of the end are finally revealed as the scroll is opened. This is what we've been longing for since chapter 4. Finally justice on the persecutors of God's people, victory over evil and the eternal state. This futuristic nature of the book stresses this as the goal of history and the point when all struggles will be resolved. The trumpets then begin the final events. Their blasts show them to be warnings of the impending arrival of the Lord, intended to bring repentance. But none is found. The bowls then signify the final pouring out of God's wrath (larger than cups). With each 7 we sense God's patience as with the Exodus in seeking to wake people up through judgments, but to little avail. Though there are hints some will turn to him during these times.

11) The 7s in chapter 19

The language of these verses alludes to 6v10-11 showing the cry of the souls under the altar is being fulfilled. In a real sense then, chapter 19 resolves the tension that has been felt in the book ever since the fifth seal was opened. The “little longer” the souls were told to wait was not until the destruction of Jerusalem that preterists think, but the final judgment and the marriage of the Lamb to his bride. This is another factor that strongly suggests the trumpets and bowls are largely chronological judgments rather than mere recapitulations as the idealists suggest. The seals detail the tribulations to mark the whole church age, but with God’s people spiritually protected. The sixth seal heralds the beginning of “the day of wrath,” and as the seventh is opened its first stage begins to be felt in the trumpets as the “mystery of God” is fulfilled. As the seventh of these is blown giving a last warning, the final and more severe expression of God’s temporal wrath is poured out in the bowls, bringing down Babylon herself. And then Christ returns. Each 7 therefore anticipates what is to come. The sixth seal anticipates the sort of cosmic events outlined by the trumpets, like the first gusts of a coming storm. And as warnings, all the trumpets anticipate the more severe expression of their judgments in the bowls. The sixth bowl then anticipates the battle of Armageddon which is the last event before Christ comes. With real genius the structure speeds us through history, always stressing both the nearness of the end and God’s restraint in giving more time.

12) The 7 Beatitudes of Revelation

There are seven statement begun “blessed is…”

  1. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (1v3)
  2. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!” (14v13)
  3. “Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” (16v15)
  4. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (19v9)
  5. “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.” (20v6)
  6. “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (22v7)
  7. “Blessed are those who wash their robes so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (22v14)

The number stresses complete and perfect blessedness, ie. joy from God. And they remind the reader that although tribulation may be their lot in this life, happy bliss really does await if they will only continue to trust Christ. This reflects the same concern of the beatitudes in Matthew 5.

13) Is the new Jerusalem a literal city

The book of Revelation is highly figurative. We don’t expect Jesus to have a literal sword in his mouth, nor churches to actually be lampstands. Likewise, when we read of the city of the age to come lit up by God’s glory, there is no reason to think it means more than we were learning about churches in this age – that it will be where God is present and darkness is driven out. Given this, it’s quite possible all the detail of Revelation 21 is highly figurative as it all has deep significance in the light of the wider scriptures. Indeed, in the light of the wider book and the heavy symbolism of some of the background – such as Ezekiel 39, I think a literal new Jerusalem as described in Revelation is unlikely. It seems to me quite possible that chapter 21 is picturing godly society as opposed to the ungodly society of “Babylon,” rather an actual city per se.
     But, again, we cannot presume that. Sometimes things are both figurative and literal. Moses face shone with God’s glory as did he and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. Moreover, the darkness that symbolises judgement actually appeared at the cross. And here, we should note that the centrality of Jerusalem in the prophets make it likely that having descended the centre of the society of the redeemed on the new earth will be a renewed Jerusalem, meaning that the vision of the Lamb enthroned etc may have some literal fulfilment too. We have seen Isaiah 60 picturing the nations coming to Zion. Zechariah 14 does the same, with them coming to the very city their countrymen rose up against. And as Jesus will forever be embodied, he will no doubt need to base himself somewhere.
     In short, I think we can say it is probable that there will actually be a city as the centre of the new creation in the location the old Jerusalem was, and that will be the seat of Jesus’ rule. But we can say no more than it is possible that it will literally display some or all of the description Revelation gives.
     What we should be noting however, is that this is not to detract from the wonder of the description. It is intended to engage our imaginations and excite us. It may be figurative, but it is true. The society of God’s people will descend from heaven to populate a sort of worldwide Eden. It will comprise only those who have believed the apostolic gospel, yet everyone without exception that has believed it will be there. This society will therefore be massive in number, beautiful and safe with all that is evil shut out. And it will be filled and illuminated by the glory of God’s presence, with the most intimate access to and awareness of him, and the greatest privilege of serving his purposes in reigning over the new creation. Because of his life-giving presence this new society will therefore experience the life we were created for, finally free from the curse and so from all evil, pain, suffering, aging and death, flourishing in the use of our gifts and the harnessing of creation, all to the praise and honour of God, whose image we bear.