The Chronology of Revelation – Chapters 21 and 22 – Part 1

In this article I examine the chronology of chapters 21 and 22 in the book of Revelation. The article is in two parts. This first part considers the contextual issues and the second look at specific factors that assist in determining the chronological sequence.

The subject is worth writing about. If chapters 21 and 22 are one unfolding narrative, then this section contains a wealth of information about the eternal state; a subject about which scripture is largely silent. If on the other hand its treatment of the eternal state is confined to the opening verses of chapter 21, then the remainder of chapter 21 and 22 provides an insight into an aspect of the Millennium about which scripture is otherwise silent; namely the idea that there are two ‘Jerusalem’s’ in the Millennium. One on earth and one over the earth.

In summary, there are two bodies of opinion as to the chronology of these chapters. One body of opinion interprets chapters 21 and 22 as a description of the eternal state. Another body of opinion accepts that chapter 21 opens with an account of the eternal state, 21. 1-8. Thereafter it is said John reverts to the Millennium. Before weighing up these alternatives, it may be helpful to make some general remarks about events at the end of the Millennium.

The context

In chapter 20, John describes the Great White Throne; the last great judgement of human history. In the course of it he notes that ‘the earth and heaven fled away’ from the face of the Judge. ‘And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works’, vv. 11, 12.

In this account, earth and heaven are personified as fugitives from the ‘face’ of the One on the throne. The establishment of the throne causes creation to react in terror and flee. That the words ‘the earth and heaven fled away’ are not to be understood exclusively as a metaphor, is evident from the opening verse of chapter 21. It states that the earth and heavens have ‘passed away’. These words describe the same event. In Revelation chapter 20 verse 11, the departure of the creation is described as a ‘flight’. Revelation chapter 21 verse 1, describes the same event in concrete terms. There it ‘passes’ away. The word ‘flee’ conveys the impression that the creation is seeking to evade its fate. By contrast, at the start of the Millennium scripture describes creation as rejoicing, e.g., Ps. 96. 11; Rom. 8. 21. The phrase ‘fleeing away’ captures two ideas. First, it suggests the speed of creation’s demise. The old creation does not shuffle off the stage of history but is gone in a moment. Second, it suggests the terror of the judgement. ‘Fleeing away’ implies that creation fears the judge. But while creation flees away ‘the dead small and great’ are unable to flee the judgement of God. The dead are judged before the throne. Since judgement in John’s writings is committed to the Lord Jesus by the Father, the One from whose face creation ‘flees’ is evidently the Lord Jesus Christ, John 5. 22. Hence, it is clear that the Great White Throne is a judgement that occurs at the end of the first creation but before the new creation is brought into being. It is a judgment that occurs after the cessation of the first creation but before the formation of the new creation.

Peter provides more detail of what happens to the old creation in 2 Peter chapter 3 verse 10, ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up’.

The demise of the old creation is accompanied by apocalyptic explosions of noise and the effusion of intense heat. As Peter makes clear, this destruction has a moral dimension. Not only is the physical universe dissolved but its works are burned. In other words, the realm in which sin has thrived for aeons is judged as those who have committed the sins have been judged.

Some argue that the old heavens and earth are annihilated. If this is so then the miracle of the first creation is reversed. It was a creation ex nihilo, Heb. 11. 3; Rom. 4. 17. According to this view, God miraculously makes creation disappear [destruction ad nihilo] and then performs another creation [another creation ex nihilo]. Others point out that the destruction of the world ['perish’, 2 Pet. 3. 6] by the flood did not mean that it was annihilated. Hence, it is argued, the old world could be destroyed without the necessity of its annihilation. Although the cataclysm of the Flood is scarcely to be compared with the dissolution of the elements described in 2 Peter chapter 3 verse 10, this is a fair point and requires Peter’s wording ‘pass away’, ‘melt’ and ‘burned up’ to be read more carefully. For those, like myself, who are reluctant to think that the work begun in Genesis chapter 1 verse 1 should end with a massive ‘scrappage scheme’, the idea of a re-born, rather than recreated earth and heavens is attractive. In truth, however, there is no express statement on the subject and both views are respectable ones to take.

It is worth noting that the language used to describe the new creation closely resembles the old. As there were heavens in the old creation, so there are heavens in the new creation. As there was an earth in the old creation, so there is an earth in the new. The new ‘heavens’ should not be confused with the ‘heaven of heavens’ in which God dwells, Deut. 10. 14; 2 Chr. 2. 6. ‘Heaven itself’ is eternal and uncreated, Heb. 9. 24. If God is eternal, His dwelling place is eternal. The created universe has a realm we call outer space. These are the astral heavens or the starry heavens. Then there is the realm we call the sky that is the aerial heavens in which birds fly and clouds float. This is the atmosphere of earth.

John then describes the new creation with the words that commence chapter 21, ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away’.
As these words indicate before, John sees the new heaven and new earth; the first heaven and first earth have already passed away. These are stupendous words. They show that the universe that now is, will be brought to an end. But out of the ashes of the old world a new world emerges.

The interpretation

With the scene now set, I turn now to the purpose of the article. There is a debate as to whether Revelation chapters 21 and 22 are one unfolding narrative describing the new earth and new heaven, or a description of the Eternal State followed by a description of the Millennium.

As a preliminary matter, it should be noted that these chapters are not a continuous account of future events. Revelation contains various parentheses addressed to the readership. From the end of part of chapter 20 verse 5 through to verse 8 is such a parenthesis in which God addresses the readers saved and unsaved alike. Likewise, there is a conclusion, 22. 6-21. The question therefore is whether the remaining parts of chapter 21 and 22 are continuous narrative or not. Some consider that after briefly touching on the Eternal State, 21. 1-5, John devotes the major part of this closing section to a description of the Millennium, 21. 9-22. 5. Before examining this hypothesis, it is necessary to acknowledge that there is evidence pointing in both directions. The aim is therefore to establish which hypothesis raises the least difficulties and to examine whether the passages in question can be harmonized.

General considerations

It should be noted, first, that Revelation is a chronological book. The book begins with the church age, chapters 1 to 3, and then speaks of the ‘things which must be hereafter’, 4. 1. John then describes the tribulation in chapters 4 to 18. This section is the longest in the book even though it covers a relatively short period of time. He then writes of the return of Christ in chapter 19. Thereafter he describes the Millennium in chapter 20, then turns to the Eternal State, 21. 1-5. If Revelation describes the Eternal State in chapter 21 verses 1 to 5 and then goes back to the Millennium in verses 9 to chapter 22 verse 5, John would not be following the chronological order that has hitherto marked the prophecy. While there are recapitulations in Revelation (sections where John re-covers material in more detail), there are no other flashbacks from one age to another. The dispensation of the church is not referred to in chapters 4 to 18, nor is the tribulation referred to after the return of Christ in chapter 19. If the section from chapter 21 verse 9 to chapter 22 verse 5 is a flashback from the Eternal State to the Millennium, this would be inconsistent with the scheme of the prophecy.

Second, it should be noted that the purpose of the book is to glorify Christ and magnify God. It is suggested that the natural terminus of such a book is to end with Christ on the throne and God ruling over the new creation. If this section is a description of the Millennium, John ends the prophecy with a description of an era that ends in the rebellion of mankind and Satan. This might be thought a surprising way to end an account of the ages to come.

To be continued.