Third, it is important to highlight the fact that John sees the New Jerusalem as a utopia and Babylon as a dystopia. If dystopia is a new term to you, think of literary works and movies such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, The Matrix, or Hunger Games. If literary works and film are not “your thing,” then just take a somber look at many of the kingdoms and cultures of Planet Earth as it stands today. While I could spend several evenings discussing the contours of Jerusalem’s utopian features and Babylon’s dystopian features, there is one that is singular in its significance. Babylon’s and Rome’s supposed greatness rested in part on their magnificent architecture and worldly prowess, their control of global real estate, while God’s utopia is imbued with all things human, a humanity redeemed and vitalized by its participation in the glory and nature of God himself. John’s utopia has no tolerance for, no interest in, a love of precious and expensive celestial architecture and landscape. John’s prophetic insight is certainly strange, even counter-culture, when compared to the many views expressed in the religious culture surrounding the early church, and at many Christian funerals today.
What a deliberate display of disrespect from God for all things Roman! Modern Christians could learn a thing or two from the scorn and the insolence contained in John’s utopia. John’s prophecies show no interest in competing with Babylon and Rome on their own terms and definitions of Utopianism. God’s truth is always too precious to be limited by the expectations of the surrounding cultures. The faithful people of God in the 21st century are currently surrounded by cultures of ignorance and arrogance when it comes to their imaginations about the destined future of humanity. It is our peril if we turn to surrounding dystopias to imagine and to discuss the utopian visions and values associated with God’s New Jerusalem. John knows well that all human rulers believe, or at least want their minions to believe, that their dystopias are, in fact, the long dreamed of utopias of humankind. John displayed a total disdain for Rome, a world empire that stretched from the River Thames to the Tigris River. This empire prided itself on efficient bureaucracy, massive roadways and interstate highways, well functioning water supplies, city planning, impressive sports arenas, massive bath complexes, triumphal military monuments, shopping centers and forums, luxurious villas and estates, and exciting venues for entertainment. None of these amenities of the good life exists in John’s utopia of the New Jerusalem, not even one single golf course.
According to the Roman imperial biographer Suetonius, the very first Roman Emperor Augustus summarized his own architectural achievements in the capital city of Rome with these words, “I found Rome a city of brick, but I left it a city of marble.” It is impossible to read John’s prophecies and not see his recurring counter-cultural, anti-imperial, oracles against the dominion of Rome (e.g., Howard-Brooks and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire. Reading Revelation Then and Now). When you think about John’s unmasking of Rome’s impotence and pretense in the presence of God and the Lamb and his glorified saints, I hope you will appreciate the prophet’s total lack of interest in human amenities and architecture as yet another example of his counter cultural stance against Roman Babylon (and contemporary Christian organizations that ape Babylon).
The fourth major theme from John’s material that should challenge the contemporary Churches of Christ today is his emphasis upon holiness. John, like most New Testament authors, clearly does not share our love affair with the term “Christian.” The term “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) barely occurs in Scripture, yet it is the term of choice for most modern followers of the Lamb. John prefers terms like “saints,” which is what you call individuals who are set apart for God and who therefore possess and advocate holiness as a lifestyle. In Rev. 4:8 the “Lord God Almighty” is called holy three times in an adaptation of Isa. 6:3. The term “prayers” is mentioned only three times in Revelation (5:8; 8:3; 8:4) and each time it is the “prayers of the saints.” It makes me wonder if you have to live a saintly life to get your prayers lifted up to God. In Rev. 11:8 there is a preview of the final judgment of the dead. It reads,
“The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great.”
The term “blood of the saints” is used three time to describe that group of believers who paid the ultimate price (Rev. 16:6; 17:6; 18:24).
Moving into our text, the New Jerusalem, the Bride, the people of God, is called “holy” three times, Rev. 21:2, 10; and in 22:19 in the epilogue. Interestingly, instances of cognate terms related to “holiness” occur 23 times in the book of Revelation, while all cognates for the word agape, love, occur only six times. Notwithstanding the ideas contained in the book Love Wins by Rob Bell, the important question for serious students of Scripture is not “does God love everyone equally.” Love is not the crucial criterion for participation in the new heaven and earth. The NT view that God loves both “saint and sinner” is expressed in verses that read,
“for God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and
God sent his Son as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The question is not whether those excluded from the new heaven and earth are loved by God, but whether they are participants in God’s process of sanctification. The promise “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4) is for the saints, those who are participating in God’s personal holiness. That is why the threat of the loss of salvation for believers stated in Rev. 22:19 is not that such people will forfeit God’s love, but rather “God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.” This Jerusalem is for those who are set apart, belonging to God’s purposes, and by their lives show their participation in God’s sanctification. Little wonder that when the imagery of the Bride of Christ and her marriage to the Lamb is introduced in Rev. 19:7-8, the Bride’s necessary preparation for the marriage is putting on her wedding garments. John identifies these wedding garments as “the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8, τὰ δικαιώματα τῶν ἁγίων ἐστίν). Regarding Judgment Day and righteous deeds, I believe that John would tell Christ followers, “Do not show up without them.”