13 September 2014Revelation 21:22 – 22:5
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (vv. 1-2)
One of the most important cultural shifts in the thousand years before Christ was the move away from the earlier small, family-based, rural, agricultural and tribal communities towards a more organised, city-based societies - with a corresponding concentration of religious and political power in the hands of urban elites. There has always been a tension between these two ways of organising human existence, with urbanisation seen as progress by some, and as symbol of all that is bad by others. It is significant, for example, that the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden was probably written during the Jewish exile in the great city of Babylon. Paradise is a rural dream, not an urban nightmare. And Rome, in turn, came to represent all that was evil in the eyes of late 1st-century Christians.
So it is interesting to see how, at the end of the book of Revelation, the vision of post-persecution perfection is set in a city. Babylon/Rome is replaced by 'the new Jerusalem' (Revelation 21:10; an image first found in the Old Testament apocalyptic book of Ezekiel), the city of the Lamb and the centre of the world. But this is a 'garden-city', where paradise is found in an urban setting, with the river and the tree of life relocated from the Garden of Eden. And the fruit of that tree, now ripe and ready for picking, feeds the faithful who have persevered in the face of persecution - "those who are written in the Lamb's book of life" (v. 27) - and the leaves will bring healing to the world following the ravages of Rome.
Here God, and not the emperor, will be worshipped - as in the old Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD70. And here, too, all of God's people, and not just the High Priest, will "see his face" (v. 3), and will share with God in ruling the earth.
- The writer of Revelation sees post-persecution 'eternal life' lived in a transformed earthly 'garden-city', not, as many Christians do, 'in heaven'. Which image do you prefer? Why?
- The idea of the Church ruling the world (well, 'Christian' Europe anyway) became a reality after the 4th-century conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Do you think that was a good thing? Why?
- How might all of this inform the way Christians live their lives in the 21st century?