The End of History
Revelation 21: 1–6; 22: 1–5
We’re concluding and looking at the basic beliefs of the Christian faith. We’ve been looking at these beliefs by using the outline of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the earliest summary of biblical doctrine the church ever used. When you get to the very end of the Apostles’ Creed you say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Which brings us not only to the end of the Apostles’ Creed but the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, where we learn what Christians believe about the end of history, about the end of time.
Ancient cultures and philosophies and religions all believed that history was circular, that it wasn’t going anywhere. Robert Nisbet years ago wrote a book called History of the Idea of Progress. He and many other historians will tell you that the very idea of progress, of history going someplace good, going toward a hope, something we hope for, comes from the Bible. That’s where the idea came into human history: from the Bible.
If you are a modern person, you probably believe in historical progress and, therefore, you ought to discover, no matter what you believe, the origin of your idea is here. Let’s see what the Bible says, what Christians believe about the end of history and the hope that history is going toward, and let’s see what these texts in the last two chapters of the book of Revelation say under these three headings. Let’s learn:
Firstly, the hope they needed (Who are they? The original readers of Revelation);
secondly, the hope they got; and
thirdly, how you and I can take hold of that hope ourselves.
The Hope They Needed.
Verse 1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, …”
It’s so easy when you read the book of Revelation to forget the original readers. The book of Revelation is about the future. Here you see the passages we’re reading are talking about the future, so we immediately start to say, “What is our future?” and we forget the fact that this book was written to a specific group of people at a specific place in time who were going through a specific experience.
The author wrote this for them originally. It’s for us too, of course, but it’s easy to forget them. We’re not going to learn what this means for us unless we see why it was written to them. Here’s what they were facing.
We know what the original readers were facing by going to the beginning of the book of Revelation, to chapters 2 and 3, where Jesus addresses certain churches at that time. When you go there you’ll see:
They were facing persecution.
They were facing suffering.
They were facing having their goods plundered, being put to death.
So there’s great suffering coming. What do you do for people who are going to face suffering? How do you get them ready for it?
You have to give them hope. You can’t deal with difficulty unless you have hope. Hope is something you expect in the future that actually enables you to handle the present.
Your expectation of the future has to be sufficient so it enables you to experience the present.
I’m going to argue right now that that hope has to be both transcendent enough and realistic enough to help you face the present. Now why would I say transcendent and realistic?
Well, transcendent. On the one hand, of the many books I’ve read over the years on history and about World War II, an era of particular interest to me, one book about the death camps in Germany that has been most interesting and helpful to me was written from someone who had survived the death camps.
He wrote about the fact that some people in the death camps seemed to lose all hope and seemed to just wither up and die, and other people did not. They actually seemed to be able to get through it. The question is … Why was it that some people seemed to get through it and some people didn’t? The answer, according to this writer, was it had to do with their hope, what they were living for. If their hope was sufficient, if it was transcendent enough, it got them through. If not, it didn’t.
For example, if the thing you were living for before you came into the death camp, if your hope was your career, success, or more nobly, if it was your family, loving your family … If that was your hope in life, then when you got into the death camp your hope was destroyed, because the death camp just took your hopes away. You had nothing.
There was one man who was mentioned in this book I was reading. He was a prisoner in the death camp. He had a wife who was deceased, and he stayed strong there, because he used to say, “I believe my wife is looking down upon me from heaven, and I don’t want to disappoint her. Someday I want to be with her, and I want her to be proud of me.
Your hope has to be transcendent enough for you to have endurance and poise in all circumstances, but it also has to be realistic enough.
People think, “Well, if we live a good life, then God in heaven is going to bless us,” and all that. It was still too simplistic, too naïve, too unrealistic to handle real life. A hope that will give you endurance and poise in all circumstances needs to be multidimensional. Not too mundane but at the same time not too naïve. It needs to be multidimensional.
Well, you know, Jesus Christ lived a far better life than you will ever live, and yet he had a terrible life. He was rejected. He was homeless. He was tortured and put to death.
Before moving on, here’s what I’m trying to establish to start with. John the apostle, who wrote the book of Revelation to these people who were about to face horrendous suffering, gave them the hope we’re about to unpack in this passage, and it is a simple fact of history that it worked. A couple of years ago, I read a lot of books on the history of how various cultures handled suffering.
What I learned from the historians was one of the reasons Christianity had so much credibility and why it succeeded as it did was because Christians were able to handle death and suffering and difficulty in ways that their neighbors could not understand. It gave them enormous credibility. Yes, when they were persecuted, when they were thrown to the lions, they did sing hymns. Yes, when the plagues came and everybody else was running out of the cities because of fear of contagion, the Christians stayed there and took care of the sick and very often died.
The people looked around and said, “How in the world are these people able to handle this kind of difficulty and suffering?” I’ll tell you how. It was their hope, the hope that’s right here. It’s a historic fact that it worked. What are you facing? What might be happening to you in the future, or what are you facing right now? I can tell you this will enable you to face it. What is this?
2. The Hope They Got.
One of the beauties of Revelation is its literary genre. It’s called the apocalyptic genre. It’s a kind of mixture of poetry and history. It’s filled with dizzying images. For example, we have here a lamb on a throne. We also have a city in a dress. A wedding dress, by the way.
Let me show you three things that are part of the hope that Christians, people who believe in Jesus Christ, know are waiting for them at the end of all things. Those three things are a love of infinite density, personal beauty, and fantastic reality.
a. A love of infinite density.
Here’s the first thing. “2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, …” Notice what it doesn’t say for a minute. It doesn’t say, “And I saw the holy suburb coming down out of heaven.” It’s not a suburb. It doesn’t say, “And I saw the holy national park coming down” or “I saw the holy farmland.” No, no. It’s a city.
What’s the difference between a city and a suburb? There are more people in a city. There’s more density of people. Those of you who live in City know what it’s like to live in a place that is incredibly people dense.
Genesis 1 and 2 tells us that we were made for love relationships. That’s the reason in the very beginning the man and the woman were naked and unashamed. To say “naked and unashamed” was really a way of saying there was absolute transparency, absolute acceptance, no blockage in their relationship at all. The minute the man and the woman lost their relationship with God, the minute they fell into sin, the minute they were ashamed and had to hide from God because they knew there was now something wrong … They ran away.
The moment they started hiding from God, they also started hiding from each other. They had to make fig leaves. They were embarrassed. Why? Because when you know there’s something wrong with you, even though you want the love of the other person, you want that other person to look into your heart and see everything and love you, you also know that if they actually saw everything in there, if anybody ever saw everything that was in there, you wouldn’t be loved.
So now the weakening dilemma of human nature is we want relationships and we’re afraid of relationships. We can’t let anybody know who we really are for fear we’ll be rejected, and yet we really want to be accepted. We really want to be loved.
To be not known because you have all your masks on … To be not known but loved is actually quite unsatisfying.
To be exposed and well known and rejected is our deepest nightmare,
but to be known fully and loved fully, to be naked and unashamed, would be joy unlimited.
Here’s what the Bible is saying. In heaven that’s what you have. It’s joy unlimited. It’s people above you and below you and around you, and yet it’s perfect love. Heaven is a world of love. The new heavens and the new earth are just filled with love. In other words, it’s an infinite intensity of love.
That’s the reason why it’s a city. Cities are good and bad, but not in the future. Once all that is gone, once all the barriers are gone, once you know that every relationship is one of infinite, perfect, deep love, then you’d want to be in a city. You’d want to have the greatest density possible, because the more dense the population, the more wonderful the love. That’s your future. That’s the first thing. In other words, a love of infinite density.
But why is it possible? Why can we have those kinds of love relationships?
b. A hope of personal beauty.
What do I mean by that? Look at the next part of what it says here. “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Suddenly we have a city that’s a bride. That gets across two things. There’s a sense in which when you become a Christian you become citizens of a city, because the Lord now is your King.
However, the Bible says the Lord does not just relate to you the way a king relates to subjects. The Lord also relates to you the way a spouse relates to a spouse, the way a husband relates to a wife. He does not just want to rule you; he wants to know you. He wants to love you. He wants you in his arms. Therefore, there’s a sense in which we are not just a city; we are also a bride. That’s why the mixture of the metaphor.
Here’s what’s interesting. It’s not just talking about being a bride in general, just having an intimate love relationship with God. It goes on and says, just to fill out the metaphor, “… as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband or adorned for her husband.” It wants us to think about wedding dresses. I wants us to think about how beautifully dressed everyone is on their wedding day. Here’s the reason why.
There have been people, for example, who have been married underwater. Have you ever seen that? Everybody puts on the goggles and the scuba gear and goes underwater, and you actually have the wedding underwater. It happens.
Not many brides and grooms look good in a bathing suit. On your wedding day you want to look good.
The reason very few people have weddings underwater is very few people look good in a bathing suit, but everybody looks good in a wedding dress.
Wedding dresses are designed to cover the flaws. They’re designed to cover the imperfections. This is almost a deliberate reference to what we know in Ephesians 5, where Paul says that when you enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ, he doesn’t just become your King and Savior; he becomes your husband. Like a husband who loves his wife, he is making us beautiful and spotless and without blemish.
What’s interesting about Ephesians 5 is we’re told that when you become a Christian, Jesus Christ loves you not because you are lovely but in order to make you lovely. There’s a sense in which he clothes you in his righteousness, in the wedding dress of his righteousness. When the Father looks at you in Jesus Christ, he sees you as something absolutely gorgeous, just the way everybody looks gorgeous on their wedding day in their wedding dresses. We sing about it.
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace.
c. A fantastic reality.
What do I mean by that? Look at this. Verse 4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
If Jesus Christ rose from the dead. You’d better find out if Jesus rose from the dead. Do you know why? Because if Jesus Christ rose from the dead and you believe in him, all of those things that you right now call fantasy will be true. Fantasy will become reality. In fact, a lot of fantasy is actually becoming reality very slowly, but on that day fantasy will be reality.
Look. It’s all there. We’re talking to angels. That’s non-human beings. See the angel? “The angel showed me the river of life.” There’s love without parting. There are no tears. There’s no death. There’s no suffering. Stepped outside of time, escape from death, love without parting, good triumphing over evil. It’ll all come true. It depends on whether Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Here’s what I want you to know. If it’s really true that the deepest longings of your heart might actually be fulfilled someday if Jesus is raised from the dead, there is no rational being who shouldn’t at least be exploring whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not. I could understand why you’d come to the conclusion that it’s not true, but I have no idea why you wouldn’t want it to be true. No idea at all. Do you see how wonderful this hope is? That’s the hope, and there’s more we could say, but we need to finally talk about this.
3. How You and I Can Take Hold of that Hope Ourselves.
I said it was a plain historic fact that people who believed that this was their future could face anything. How can you make it your own? You can make it your own if you notice three kinds of languages. In this passage, there’s the language of stage, the language of gift, and the language of substitution.
a. The language of stage.
Look at the stages. Verse 4 says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” All this hope is future. “There will be no more death,” which means there’s death now and there’s crying now. So in a sense, this hope is future, but then look at verse 5. It’s interesting. “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘I will make everything new.’ ” No, that’s not what it said. Are you reading? “Behold, I am making all things new.”
What we’re being told here is, on the one hand, this hope is not yet, but it’s also to some degree happening now. In the future, relationships are perfect (perfect love), but when the Holy Spirit comes into your life, when Christ comes into your life, there can be some supernatural healing of relationships now. In the future, you will be gloriously personally beautiful, and yet when the Holy Spirit comes into your life, to some degree you can see miraculous changes in character in yourself right now.
When you experience, you might say, a down payment on the future, that makes you so sure of the future you can really face everything. You know it’s coming, and yet you’re realistic about the fact that it’s not here yet.
b. The language of gift.
What’s that? Verse 6: “And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. ” Who gets into this city? The courageous? The bold? The moral? The perfect?
Who gets into the city? The thirsty. “Well, what do you mean?” You just have to say, “I’m empty.” Not “Look at what I’ve done. Look at how I’m living. I’ve cleaned up my life. I’ve stopped my shady business practices. We stopped cheating on each other.” No, no. It’s those who know they need to be saved by grace. It’s those who just say …
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace.
Do you want to have this hope? Do you want to make it yours? Then say, “Father, save me by grace.” Sheer grace. Then you say, “Well, why should he save me by grace?”
c. The language of substitution.
Over and over again it says, “The throne of God and of the Lamb.” He could have used all kinds of images here at the very end of history. He could have talked about the throne of God and the Son or the Shepherd. It could have been anything. Why the Lamb? I’ll tell you why. This is taking us back to the book of Exodus.
God says back when the Israelites were in Egypt, “I’m going to send my angel of death to Egypt. I’m going to send my sword of judgment.” What is the sword of judgment? “Because of your sin, the firstborn of every family will die”. We do not understand the meaning of that. In more patriarchal cultures, the hope of the family was in the firstborn.
If the firstborn was strong, if the firstborn was able, then the firstborn could lead the family, keep the family together, keep the family status, maybe increase the family’s status in the world. The hope of the family was in the firstborn, and God was saying, “Because of your sin, you need to be judged and you need to lose all hope. The firstborn of every family is going to die.” But God said to the Israelites, “If you slay a lamb and put the blood of the lamb on the doorpost, the angel of death will pass over you and your firstborn will not die,” and that’s what happened.
Centuries later, John the Baptist sees Jesus Christ walking along, and suddenly he gets it. He says, “Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.” Do you know what he’s saying?
By divine revelation, he says, “Now I get it.” Our sins weren’t atoned for by those sweet little furry lambs. God is giving up his firstborn. God’s Son is going to die in our place on the cross so that our firstborn don’t have to die, so that we don’t have to die.
If you understand the language of substitution, if you can say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” if you say, “Father, I need the water of grace, the water of life, as a free gift, and I know it can come to me because of what Jesus Christ has done,” this hope is yours.
So what should we do with it? I’ll tell you two things to do.
Firstly, God loves cities, obviously, so get out there into your city and work on holistic relationships. Serve it. Care for the poor. Do what you can to make it a good city. Not in a utopian way that thinks somehow you can create a perfect city. Of course not. But if you see that the end of history is a perfect city, then you, as a Christian, will go out there and you will have the impetus and the motivation to do what small things you can do to make our earthly city more like that heavenly city.
The second thing is don’t care whatever people say, and don’t worry whatever may come into your life that seems like it’s taking something important. Whatever happens right now, it is nothing compared to what we’re going to have. Let the multidimensionality of this hope help you with your own suffering and difficulty.