With the dual climax of victory and judgment now behind, the narrative turns toward the denouement. The great villain leaves the scene for ever and, with the exception of some brief exclusionary phrases, all unpleasantness is behind John. What remains is to see the great reward for which the witnesses of the Lord have endured, to realize the promise that is issued in the death of Christ (depicted in the beginning of the book as the slain Lamb) and finally ensured under the triumphant Christ(depicted at the end of the book as the conqueror on a white horse). God declares, "Behold, I am making all things new." Suddenly the world is returned to a pristine paradise, edenic in its appearance only more wonderful still. The Tree of Life is reopened to public consumption without that pesky Tree of Knowledge to wreak havoc with humanity. The river and the garden are accompanied by a great new city that represents Jerusalem as it ought to have been: pure, wonderful, and with God at her center. The imagery is enough to tantalize a lifetime's worth of imaginings.
Yet, as easy as it may be to delight in the particulars of the picture offered up to us as our hope for eternity--and that delighted is heightened when we consider just how unpleasant the narrative has been to this point--there is a more important theme at work here. Before God declares that all things will be made new, before we tour the New Jerusalem, before the thirsty are promised the waters of life, and before the whole chorus lapses into an eternal doxology, a voice from heaven makes an initial pronouncement: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." In this is the actual resolution of the tension in Revelation. As with the entirety of Scripture, the real villain has not been Satan but separation. Through the entire narrative, the persistent scene has been of the commands of God in heaven and their actualization on earth. God stands at a distance throughout as He works out His plan of justice and, ultimately, reconciliation.
This desire that God should be our God and we His people has been a persistent theme in Scripture. It is the essence of God's covenant with Abraham which in turn forms the whole basis for the divine work of election and redemption in the world. It was the purpose of Israel's sacrificial system of atonement that God should have some tangible presence with His people. It was the reason Solomon built the temple and the reason he knew it was ultimately inadequate. It both explains Israel's disintegration and exile and fuels their hopes for return. Paul will use it to warn Christians against repeating the sins of Israel. This ardent hope, both of God's and of humanity's, John depicts as fulfilled. His readers then, as we do now, knew that God's dwelling with humanity was still merely a promise only partially fulfilled with the gift of His Spirit for His church, but they understood after centuries of having the theme reverberating over and over again in the Scriptures that all their hope rested on the fact that God would someday break through the barriers which separate us.
It is interesting that this declaration of achievement precipitates every other blessing which is offered. Because He is there, God will wipe away all tears, and "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore." Our former mode of existence, living apart from God, is no more. In the New Jerusalem, there is no temple anymore. After all, it was merely a symbol of God's presence; the New Jerusalem needs no inadequate symbols. The city will be beautiful radiance of fine jewels because it has "the glory of God." This radiance of God replaces the very sun, and all people will walk in His light, by His light. It is He who bids them drink from the river of life. There will be no doubt, no idolatry, no sin, because God is present and has taken His people unto Himself. Cast in this light, the final scene of Revelation becomes for us a call to refocus our hope, to strip ourselves of any superficial desire to escape this material world into a heavenly realm of mansions, robes, crowns, gold, and even more substantial things like release from disease and death and sorrow. All these are accidents. The true substance of our hope is that God should be, in a real and tangible sense, our God and that we may be purely, reverently, joyously, His people.
For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.