Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
When John reports his vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” we hear echoes from the past. The first and most obvious echo is of the first creation. The opening line of Scripture reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The new heaven and new earth seen by John are also created by God, along the lines of Genesis 1. As we’ll see, in some ways the new creation is consistent with the first creation, and in some ways it is distinct from it.
Revelation 21:1 echoes another passage from the Old Testament. This fact is suggested by the NIV’s use of quotation marks around “a new heaven and a new earth.” A footnote in the NIV attributes this quotation to Isaiah 65:17, in which the Lord says, “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” What follows in Isaiah 65 paints a glorious picture of this new creation. If we want to understand Revelation 21, we should pause for a moment to consider the vision of the future found in Isaiah 65.
According to this passage, God’s new creation will be filled with joy. Not only will human beings “be glad and rejoice forever” (65:18), but even the Lord “will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in [his] people” (65:19). The joy of the future will not be mixed with sorrow because “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more” (65:19).
In the new creation of Isaiah 65, human beings will not lounge about on clouds or spend eternity singing to God. Rather, God’s people will work in ways reminiscent of the first creation: “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (65:21). They will not be victims of injustice, however, in which their work benefits only their masters (65:22). Rather, the Lord says, “My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain” (65:22-23). Why will work be a benefit to those who do the work? Because “they will be a people blessed by the LORD” (65:23).
The natural order will also be renewed when God creates the new heavens and earth. “The wolf and lamb will feed together,” rather than the wolf feeding on the lamb (65:25). “The lion will eat straw like the ox,” rather than eating the ox and other animals. Moreover, in a clear echo of Genesis 3:14, “dust will be the serpent’s food.”
Not everything in Isaiah 65 will be mentioned in Revelation 21. Yet, the Hebrew text helps us grasp the background for John’s vision of the future. Isaiah enables us to see things in Revelation that we might otherwise overlook.
It is particularly striking to me that the vision of the new heavens and earth in Isaiah 65 includes a clear picture of good work with good results. God’s people will build houses and live in them. They will plant and eat the fruit of their labors. Even more pointedly, they “will long enjoy the work of their hands” (65:22). The full goodness of work, lost when human beings sinned, will be restored in God’s new creation. People will not labor in vain because they are blessed by the Lord (65:23). Notice that in this passage divine blessing does not mean we no longer work, but rather that our work is fruitful and meaningful.
In time, we’ll see where human work figures into John’s vision of the future in Revelation 21. For now, let’s take time to reflect on the earlier prophecy of Isaiah and how it addresses our own understanding and experience of work.
Something to Think About:
As you ponder the future vision of Isaiah 65, what comes to mind for you? What thoughts? What feelings? You may want to read Isaiah 65:17-25 to get a better sense of this passage.
What do you think about the description of work in Isaiah 65: 21-23? Do you think we will work in the new heaven and new earth? If so, why? If not, why not?
When have you experienced, however partially, the goodness of work? Do you look forward to a future when your work will be consistently rewarding and fruitful?
Gracious God, thank you for the prophecy of the future in Isaiah 65. Thank you for how it inspires and even intrigues us. It’s so easy for us to think of work as something that has no place in Heaven. Yet, if you originally created us for work in the first creation, it does make sense that we would continue to work in the new creation. Help us, Lord, to see our lives today in light of your glorious future. Help us to live, however incompletely, in the reality of your future. Amen.
This post was originally published on April 5, 2016.