Mystery is a feature of false religion. To ease and justify our natural inclination towards unbelief, we tend to take refuge in the idea that spiritual things are a mystery. I want us to think about the reality of God. I don't want to repeat here what I've often said and written about the fact that God is a personal, corporeal being; He is not an intangible essence drifting about in space (1) . God is real, and He should be a reality in our lives. We should have a real concept of relationship with Him now, and be able to look forward to a future relationship with Him. He shouldn't be a 'black box' in our brain which we label 'God'.
The reality of God slipped away from Israel, and all that happened to them is likely to happen to us, individually and communally. After their return from Babylon, the Jews translated the Old Testament into 'Targums', written in Aramaic. These chose to substitute the phrase " the word of God" for the inspired descriptions of God as a personal being. The following are a few of many examples:
Ex. 31:13. The Sabbath " is a sign between me and you."
" Between my word and you" .
Deut. 9:3. " God is a consuming fire."
" The word of God is a consuming fire"
Isa. 48:13. " My hand laid the foundation of the earth."
" By my word I have founded the earth"
Early Christianity was likewise corrupted by Gnosticism, which reflected Eastern philosophy in which spirit was regarded as essentially good, and matter as evil. This false philosophy resulted in the rejection of God as a material being. The idea that God is a personal being was once clearly proclaimed as fundamental by many Christian writers (2) . But now it seems we place little emphasis upon this. And as Israel made God more and more abstract, mentally distancing themselves from Him, so we, too, can distance ourselves from the reality of the Father.
The final chapters of Revelation describe our ultimate destiny, and they have a lot to say about our relationship with God. You may have noticed that most expositions of Revelation tend to skip over these last two chapters; as we read them twice a year, perhaps we, too, would rather gloss over them as altogether too fantastic to get to grips with. But we are called to high things, things which God surely wants us to at least try to enter into.
The first question we need to tackle is whether the events of Rev. 21 and 22 occur at the start or finish of the Millennium. Well, let's present the conclusion before giving the evidence: these chapters refer to the position at the start of the Millennium. Consider the strong evidence:
- Revelation of the situation after the Millennium would surely be inappropriate, if not impossible, for us to receive in this dispensation.
- The context of Revelation 21 and Revelation 22 is set in chapter 20. The earth and heaven flee away when Christ sits on the throne, " and there was found no place for them" (20:11). This is almost quoting Dan. 2:35 concerning the establishment of the Kingdom(3) .
- In place of this heaven and earth, a new heaven and earth appear in Revelation 21:1. This is the language of Isa. 65:17 and 2 Pet. 3:13 concerning the second coming.
- In this context, John sees " the bride, the Lamb's wife" (Revelation 21:2,9). The church is only a bride at the time of the second coming, seeing she marries Christ at the marriage supper.
- At this time, " God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death" , sorrow etc. (Revelation 21:4). The church will not be afflicted by these things during the Millennium; this must refer to Christ's return. Likewise the gift of the water of life (Revelation 21:6) is at the judgment at the second coming.
- The idea of former things (e.g. death, tears) passing away in 21:4 is one of many connections in Revelation 21 and Revelation 22 with Isaiah's prophecies of the second coming (Revelation 21:4 = Isa. 60:20; 65:19; Revelation 21:25 = Isa. 60:11,20).
- Revelation 21:7 speaks of the time when the faithful believer will receive his inheritance. This surely refers to the judgment at the second coming (Matt. 25:34).
- Revelation 22 has a number of connections with Revelation 21 which would indicate that we are to see Revelation 22 as also referring to the start, rather than the end, of the Millennium (e.g. Revelation 22:14, 21:27; 2:7). " The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 22:2) is another obvious example.
- " They shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 22:5) is the language of Dan. 7:18,27 concerning the judgment at Christ's return.
Now I want to analyze some verses in these chapters which seem to teach that God Himself, in person, will descend to earth with Christ. This might sound altogether too incredible. But think about the idea.
The King Himself (= God) comes to see the guests at the wedding of His Son (= Jesus; Mt. 22:11). " The tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God" (Revelation 21:3). " God himself" here either means God Himself or God manifest in Christ. Some years ago in our community there was a tendency to over-stress the humanity of Christ. Then the pendulum swung the other way; now, I'd suggest, we're taking the concept of God manifestation in Christ too far, to the point where the wonder of Christ's personality is obscured and one almost makes Christ a puppet of the Father (4) . " God himself shall be with them" seems to me an odd way of describing Christ's second coming. God will " be their God." I would just about be willing to concede that this might apply to God manifest in Christ - but for one significant fact: this Revelation 21:3 is packed with O.T. allusions which explicitly refer to God the Father.
" The tabernacle of God" being God's people; He being our God; God living and walking with us, is evidently alluding to Lev. 26:11,12 and Ex. 29:45,46 concerning the ultimate blessings of the covenant after Israel's final repentance. The shadowy fulfilment they have had in the past through God's manifestation in an Angel doesn't mean that these promises can and must only be fulfilled by some form of God manifestation. Surely Revelation 21:3 is saying that at the second coming the principle of God manifestation will change in that God will personally be with His people. Because we have so far lived under the paradigm of God manifestation, let's not think that it's not possible for God to personally be with us. Let's really try to be broad-minded enough to take this on board.
God promised Abraham that through Christ, His seed, blessing would come on people from all nations, with the result that God would be the God of Abraham's multitudinous seed: " To be a God unto...thy seed...I will be their God" (Gen. 17:7,8). The seed is Christ, and the " God" is Yahweh. Let's not confuse them. Now in Revelation 21:3 this fundamental promise is alluded to; God Himself will be our God then; we will see Him and have a personal relationship with Him. This would mean that this idea of personally being with God is a fundamental part of the Gospel preached to Abraham.
" God Himself" is difficult to refer to God manifestation in Christ. Long ago John Thomas urged us to settle for the simplest interpretation of a passage if it was supported by other verses. The other references to " God himself" are to Yahweh personally, rather than to Christ: Isa 45:18; Jn. 5:37; 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:18,19; Eph. 1:5. Indeed, those N.T. references seem to point a difference between " God himself" and Christ. So isn't it lack of spiritual vision - perhaps even of faith - that makes us wriggle against the idea of God Himself, in person, living with us?
The idea of God Himself dwelling with men in the tabernacle (temple) of the new city of Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2,3) is a clear reference to Eze. 48:35, which says that the name of Jerusalem in the Millennium will be " Yahweh is there" . These ideas doubtless also have reference to Yahweh's promise to David to build an eternal house for Yahweh's Name.
Let's pause to stress something. The promises to Abraham and David (i.e. the New Covenant) and those found in the Old Covenant, are all alluded to here in Revelation 21:3. This would indicate that the ultimate fulfilment of God's plan is to have a full personal relationship with us for eternity. Now that's something to really chew on.
Revelation 21:2,3 describe a new city and temple coming down from Heaven at the time God Himself descends. This city and temple is evidently that of Eze. 40-48 - chapters few of us have difficulty in understanding literally (5) . The tabernacle, upon which the temple was based, was a pattern, or reflection, of things in Heaven itself (Heb. 9:23), i.e. " the temple which is in heaven" (Rev. 14:17). The structure and furniture of the tabernacle was an " example and shadow of heavenly things" (Heb. 8:5); " the holy places made with hands...are the figures of the true...the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man" (Heb. 9:24; 8:2). For this reason we read in Revelation about the Jewish feasts being kept in Heaven (6); of a heavenly incense altar, holy place, most holy place, incense etc., with the Angels acting as the priests. Thus Priests and Angels are both called 'Elohim'. There was a clear understanding by many Jews that the layout of the tabernacle on earth was a direct reflection of the physical organization in Heaven (7) .
It is stressed in Heb. 9:24; 8:2 that this Heavenly temple was made by God not by human hands. The Kingdom of Christ is symbolized as a stone cut without hands (Dan. 2:44). Likewise Abraham looked forward to the Kingdom in terms of a city " whose builder and maker is God" ; and God, we are told, has prepared that city for Abraham and his seed (Heb. 11:10,16). The coming down of that city/temple from Heaven in Revelation 21:3 is the fulfilment of Abraham's hope. The city/temple from Heaven has foundations (Revelation 21:14), just as Abraham expected (Heb. 11:10). Surely Abraham was looking forward to the literal realities described in Eze. 40-48. So I suggest that we read the account of the new city/temple coming down with some element of literalism bout it - although, of course, there is much symbolism too. There is no hint that the temple of Eze. 40-48 is built by human labour; it appears on the scene straight after the Gogian invasion and the judgment of Eze. 37-39. If it literally descends from Heaven, a lot of practical problems are solved (8)
Throughout Revelation 21 and 22 there is a distinction made between God and " the Lamb" . This further suggests that the references to " God himself" are not to God manifestation in the Lamb, but to Yahweh Himself. " They shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads" (Revelation 22:4) indicates that " his face" and " his name" refer to the same being. The Name which will be in our foreheads will be that of Yahweh, the Father, not Christ (Rev. 3:12; 14:1). Therefore it is His face which we will see. Of course there is some reference here to 'seeing' in the sense of understanding, which is how we see the Father now. But then our fuller mental comprehension of the Father will be reflected in our physical vision of Him. Is. 25:6-9 speaks of how God's people will enjoy a feast in Jerusalem at the Lord's return, the veil will be withdrawn from their eyes, all tears will be wiped away, and then " It shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God...this is Yahweh" . There is a parallel between physically seeing God and having the veil of our present incomprehension removed. The fuller understanding which we will then have will be reflected in our literal seeing of God.
The Son's present relationship with the Father includes physical sight and proximity (Christ's physical relationship to the Father is referred to in Hebrews several times). And His present relationship will then be shared with us. Let's not just see these relationships in purely abstract terms. Job, in the depths of depression and intense abstraction, could look ahead to the wonder of seeing God's face (Job 33:26 NIV). God dwells in light (1 Tim. 6:16), and this new city will have light from God, through Christ (Revelation 21:11,23; 22:5) - because Yahweh Himself will be there. Perhaps some of the intensity of that light will spread out to the surrounding world (Revelation 21:24), so that the nations call Jerusalem the place where Yahweh is (Eze. 48:35). The utter literality of all this was perhaps emphasized to John, when he was told: " Write: for these words are true and faithful" (Revelation 21:5). The almost fantastical description of God Himself wiping away all the tears that are in (Gk.) the eyes of men...this really is true and faithful.
In the context of the judgment seat, we are told that God the Father will be revealed then (1 Thess. 3:13; 1 Jn. 3:1,2). That the Father will then " appear" separate from the Son would add weight to the idea that Yahweh will physically appear then. This is the scenario of Dan. 7:9-13 where " the Ancient of days" sits enthroned at judgment (see Dan. 7:9 RV), and the Son of man comes before him with the clouds of Heaven (cp. Lk. 21:27). At the judgment, Christ will confess the names of the faithful " before my Father" (Matt. 10:32,33) - as if they are both there. Christ will confess us before the Father and the Angels (Rev. 3:5), surely alluding to Dan. 7:9-13. The Father Himself will reward men at the judgment in the sight of others (Matt. 6:4,6). Again, note that " the Father Himself" refers elsewhere to God Himself. Then, at the day of judgment, we will finally come to God.
Perhaps all this is a challenge, intellectually and spiritually. Perhaps it's how you've always seen it. But we will each meet the Father, our Father. He is our Father. Elihu encouraged Job to trust God, because one day he would see Him at the judgment (Job 35:14). Of all the endless trivia which fills our brains now, the wonder of these things is utterly eternal.
(2) John Thomas, Phanerosis p.25-27, 32,33; Eureka I p.95-98; Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray p.118-121; Is There A God? p.149; Percy White, The Doctrine Of The Trinity p.129-132; Dawn Booklet No.1 p.12; Dawn ('Light') Bible Correspondence Course p.12 (All available from CAT, 49 The Woodfields, South Croydon CR2 0HJ England).
(7) See Midrash Rabba, Numbers Vol.22.214.171.124 (Soncino Press, 1961): " The position of the terrestrial Sanctuary corresponds with that of the heavenly Sanctuary and the position of the ark with that of the heavenly throne" . Likewise Leon Nemoy, ed. The Midrash on Psalms (Yale University Press, 1959), p.386: " The sanctuary below is the counterpart of the sanctuary above" .