The vision in Rev. 21 opens with a great divine act of re-creation. As only God can create, calling suns and stars, water and land into existence at the beginning, so only God can restore, bringing into being a new world in which his will for his creatures is fully realized.
Apocalypse recapitulates Genesis. A fresh start is made. The first heaven and the first earth are not said to be destroyed, like death and hades in the previous chapter. John simply says that they “passed away” (apēltham). “The sea was no more,” not because the ocean as such is cursed, but because the sea in Israel’s imagination represents chaos, darkness, the deep. Now chaos yields to cosmos, disorder to peace, death to life.
God does this. It is not the outcome of any human scientific or technological achievement. The new city comes “down out of heaven from God,” a sheer miracle, a gift apocalyptically bestowed at the end of history and not the outcome of history itself. The unmistakable apocalyptic signature here is the word idou (“behold”), uttered first by a “loud voice from the throne” (21:3) and repeated by “he who was seated on the throne” (21:5).
his unambiguous act of divine speech is the first such we have heard since 1:8. Idou invites us not to act but to see, not to perform but to watch in awe, not to take action but to rejoice, welcoming the city’s gracious manifestation among us. . . .
The goal of all this is the establishing of communion: “Behold, the dwelling place [skēnē] of God is with man. He will dwell with them [skēnōsei met’ autōn], and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3). The language is drawn from the law (Lev. 26:12) and the prophets (Ezek. 27:27), reminding us that the people of this God can only be Israel and not some generic “humanity.”
If grace does not destroy nature, still less does the new creation annul God’s covenant with Abraham! The language bespeaks a covenantal sense of mutuality, God with his people, the people with their God. The long history that reaches from Moses to David to Jeremiah and beyond is not undone.
Yet just as in the new creation imagery, John seems to envisage a certain return to the beginning: thus the image of the desert tabernacle, the skēnē, the tent of the divine presence. The tape is being rewound, past the historical Jerusalem with its compromised history, past even the settlement of the land, to the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It is as though God’s new dwelling with Israel will combine the splendor of life in the city with the simplicity of life in the wilderness, when, for Jeremiah anyway, the bride of YHWH was still faithful to her spouse (Jer. 2:1-2).
But skēnē is also the language of incarnation. It is the term John the Evangelist uses to speak of the Son of God’s “tenting” or “tabernacling” in human flesh (John 1:14). Not, of course, that the heavenly city is identical with Christ’s historical sojourn in the flesh. But the city inhabits the space of divine-human communion he has established.
The “dwelling of God is with man,” first and decisively in Christ himself, then in the church so far as it is joined to his divine-human, life-giving person.