1. Revelation 21:1 (ESV)
  2. Exposition

What is the sense of the word “new”?

Revelation 21:1 (ESV)

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

The demise of Satan (Revelation 20:10) and his two collaborators (Revelation 19:20) raises the question of what is to become of the earth they once governed (Revelation 12:9, Revelation 12:12; Revelation 13:7, Revelation 13:14). The present verse in context answers that question with its message that this earth will be made new, and so will heaven.

Three times in Revelation 21:1 John uses the adjective new (to describe a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem, and once more in Revelation 21:5, all things new). The Greek language has multiple words that translate into English as new. The term John uses here denotes a qualitative change while at the same time retaining the old. It is not the case that God will discard the heaven and the earth he fashioned in the beginning and begin again with a second heaven and a second earth unconnected to the first. The term new does not mean that Rather, the word new catches the notion of change, of the present heaven and the present earth being renewed, revised. So the new captures the concept of discontinuity as well as continuity.

The nature of the change (discontinuity) is reflected in a) the absence of the sea (standing for turbulence – a threat in Paradise already, Genesis 2:15; Genesis 3:1), and b) God’s own dwelling moving from heaven to earth, which is the fulfilment of Paradise. The continuity is reflected in the name of the holy city, that is, Jerusalem, where God used to live among his people in the little piece of heaven at the back of the temple (known as the Most Holy Place).

Jesus uses the same word when he gives his disciples a new commandment, to love one another as he loved them. Clearly, this new command does not stand in contrast to an old commandment (to not love?!) but implies a new depth to the love always implied in God’s commands, that is, a qualitative change. The new heaven is the old heaven changed into something even better than the old; hence both continuity and discontinuity. The same is true of the new earth and the new Jerusalem. The concept of qualitative change (as opposed to brand new) is reflected in the description of the bride in Revelation 21:2; she is not a new person but an improved version, one prepared, beautified. The word renewed is perhaps a better word than new but also doesn’t fully capture the sense of the Greek word.