When my wife, Katrina, was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we were relatively young adults. Soon after her diagnosis—it might have been on the way home from the doctor’s office as we tried to make sense of it all—we decided we’d try to travel some, since it appeared doubtful we’d be able to do so in our later years. So periodically, she and I tried to take a trip somewhere.
That’s when I learned the value of having some good travel handbooks. Back in the days of bookstores, I would go to the travel section and buy several guidebooks, say, to Paris or to London. Our favorites were the ones by Rick Steves. We never went wrong when we took his advice.
Learning in advance is critical to having an enriching trip. The more I studied a place, the more I knew what I wanted to see—and the greater my anticipation.
Well, there’s still one country I’ve not visited and one city I’ve not seen. Today I came to church holding a travel guidebook, which tells me everything I need to know about the greatest destination in time and eternity. In a broad sense, we call this guidebook the Bible. It not only tells us about the Celestial City, but it tells us how to get there.
The section of the Bible which really and truly seems like a very precise travel guide to the future is the book of Revelation. Now, we have to get over our intimidation of the book of Revelation. If I had an extra hour today, I could explain the book of Revelation to you. I think I could explain it even to elementary and certainly to middle school students. We don’t have time for that today, but I want to make three preliminary comments about this last and final book of the Bible—Revelation.
First, all of the books of Bible lead to the book of Revelation. If it weren’t for the book of Revelation, the Bible would end with the tiny book of Jude, which is a wonderful book about contending for the faith and keeping our doctrine with theological integrity. It warns us about false teachers. But it could never be an adequate ending for a book like the Bible. If our New Testament ended with Jude, we’d still be looking for some manuscript somewhere that gave the Bible the ending it deserves.
Jude would be a strange way to end the Bible. It would be incomplete. And so would the Bible’s description of Jesus Christ. If you don’t see the presentation of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation, you cannot have a fulfilled or fulfilling view of Him. The Bible would be unfinished. It would be like a novel with the last chapters missing. All the other sixty-five books of the Bible lead to the book of Revelation.
Second, all of the pictures of Jesus in the Bible are completed in the book of Revelation. In 1796, the famous artist Gilbert Stuart painted a portrait of George Washington, but he never finished it. It’s known officially as the Athenaeum, but most people know it as the unfinished portrait. Without the book of Revelation, we would have an unfinished portrait of Jesus Christ.
It’s in the book of Revelation that we see Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, surrounded by twenty-four elders, four living creatures, and ten thousand times ten thousand of the heavenly host singing, “Worthy is the Lamb.” It’s here that we see Him as the rider on a white horse, descending to bring judgment on the world and eradicate evil in the universe once and for all. It’s here that we see Him as the high King of Heaven, who irradiates the city of God with the brilliance of His own burning luminescence.
Third, all the chapters of Revelation lead us to our eternal home. There are twenty-two chapters in Revelation. Nineteen of them are prophecies related to the end of the world, and the last two chapters open the doors of eternity and lets us see our Heavenly Home.
Let me give you a quick review of what Revelation says about the future. This book describes five great events that are still ahead of us. In my lifetime I’ve lived through the assassination of a president, a war in southeast Asia, 9/11, endless wars in the Middle East, a global pandemic, and the rise of a militant form of humanism and Marxism that threatens religious freedom in America.
But it’s nothing compared to what’s ahead. The book of Revelation is our travel guide to the future. Here’s a bird’s eye view.
1. Seven Years of Tribulation
First, there will be seven years of great tribulation, and if you want to know what will happen during the coming tribulation, begin reading at Revelation 6, and read to Revelation 18. There are thirteen chapters of apocalyptic events, culminating in the Battle of Armageddon. These cascading, unfolding disasters are described in Revelation 6 through 18.
2. The Return of Jesus Christ
Chapter 19 describes the return of Jesus Christ. The entire chapter—Revelation 19—describes in the Bible’s most vivid terminology the return of Christ to this planet, the Second Coming.
3. The Thousand-Year Reign of Christ
Third, when Jesus comes, He will establish a thousand year reign on earth, headquartered in earthly Jerusalem. You can read about this in Revelation 20:1-6. You can also open to almost any page in the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel and read all about this millennial reign. That’s in the first half of Revelation, chapter 20.
4. The Great White Throne Judgment
The last half of chapter 20 describes the final event that will take place in the long, torturous history of the human race—the great white throne judgment. And that’s where I want to slow down and dip into the Scripture. Let’s begin with the final moment in the history of the physical universe as we know it. After the current age in which we are living; after the coming seven years of great tribulation; after the Battle of Armageddon; after the return of Jesus Christ; and after the Millennial reign of Christ – after all this we come to the terminal event in human history and on this earth and in this universe.
Look at Revelation 20:11:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it.
This is the final climatic momentous event in human history. This event will slam the door on time and history. At the end of everything—after the current age, after the Tribulation, and after the Millennial Reign of Christ, suddenly a Great White Throne will appear.
Verse 11 goes on to say: The earth and the heavens fled from His presence and there was no place for them. What does this mean? What can it possibly mean when it says earth and heaven fled from God’s presence and there was no longer a place for them?
The apostle Peter described this in 2 Peter 3: By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly…. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare… That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat (2 Peter 3:7-12).
Psalm 102:25-26 says: In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.
Jesus said: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Luke 21.33).
I believe this fiery, cataclysmic termination of the universe occurs right here, Revelation 20:11: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from His presence, and there was no place for them.
In other words, they no longer exist. At this point, the entire universe and the whole world will burst into a fireball that will envelop the entire cosmos, and everything—every planet, every star—everything will be vaporized.
For a terrible moment, the only visible thing in the entire physical realm will be an enormous throne of dazzling holiness and whiteness.
Verse 12: And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.
I do not believe the followers of the Lamb will be anywhere near this Great White Throne. We will be in Heaven. We’ll be far away. These are the lost, those who neglected Jesus, those who delayed, those who trampled underfoot the precious blood of the Lamb. They will suddenly be standing fully exposed before this great throne. The books that are opened are the life stories of every single person. It’s every person’s biography from God’s perspective.
Another book was opened, which is the book of life.
This incredible book is described in many places in the Bible. It’s the listing of all those redeemed by Christ, washed in His blood, given eternal life through His name. If your name is in the Book of Life, you’re safe and secure from all alarm. You’re already in Heaven. You’re shielded from the wrath to come.
The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in them, and death and Hades gave up the dead there were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
To me, this is the most sobering and frightening paragraph in the Word of God. This is the final judgment—the Great White Throne Judgment, when there will be nothing between you and the holy judgment of God. You will have no attorney. You will have no advocate. You will have no recourse. You will have no appeal. Those without Christ will be lost forever.
But look at the next verse, what awaits those who do know the Lord Jesus Christ. This brings us to the two chapters—Revelation 21 and 22—which end the Bible with a tourist handbook of Heaven.
5. The New Heavens and the New Earth
John wrote: The I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
The earth beneath us and the universe around us was vaporized in fire at the moment of the Great White Throne Judgment, and the lost plunged into the lake of fire. But instantly God will create a new heaven and a new earth. He is going to create a new universe. He will create new galaxies. He will create new stars and planets. And He will create a new planet earth.
There is a difference among Bible scholars at this point. Some believe the Lord will use the molten remains of the old universe to create the new, and others believe He will create the new universe ex nihilo, from nothing. But in either case there will be the new heavens and a new earth.
This will be the restored Garden of Eden, magnified to a trillionth degree. In fact, the original Garden of Eden was a miniature primitive replica of this place. Eden was a very miniature mock-up of the new heavens and the new earth.
This is what we call Heaven. We are talking literally about a literally new universe and a literally new planet earth. We are talking about new stars and planets and galaxies. We are talking about new mountains and rivers and valleys. It took me a long time to realize this, and I’m convinced the reason many Christians are ambivalent about Heaven is because they have no idea how to visualize it.
Well, please read this verse. This is not symbolic language. This is not a metaphor. This is not a figure of speech. This is not allegorical. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. John is actually quoting from the book of Isaiah here. This isn’t a new teaching. From the days of Eden, God’s people have had biblical reasons for expecting a very physical, literal, eternal Home.
The last phrase in this verse seems to bother people. Revelation 20:1 says, 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.
A lot of people say, “But I like the ocean!”
Please don’t worry about that. First, I have reasons to believe the new earth is going to be much larger than the current earth. I think it will be larger than Jupiter, which is the largest planet in our solar system. If you opened Jupiter up like a candy jar, you could pour 1300 planets the size of earth inside of it. It’s my opinion that the new earth will be far larger than Jupiter. And I’m sure there will be vast bodies of water on earth.
I’ll tell you something. I love water features in a landscape. I installed several water fountains and bubbling brooks around my house. One little boy came over last year and he said, “Mister, you sure like water features.” Well, I do. I remember when I first fell in love with features when I was a little boy in 1960. It’s funny how some things stick in your mind. Well, the Lord loves water features too—from vast waterfalls to the dew that glistens in the sunlight.
Right now on planet earth, 70 percent of the surface of the globe is a watery wasteland that cannot be inhabited. Remember, the apostle John wrote these words while marooned on a prison island in the Aegean Sea. Watery wastelands of ocean separated him from his loved ones.
I’m sure there will be fabulous water features on the new earth, and there will be large bodies of water. But I believe much more of the landmass will be inhabitable.
Now, let’s go on to verse 2: I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I want to make this as clear as I can, so let me give you two statements about this.
First, the new heavens and the new earth do not yet exist. They are in the future. The Lord will create the new improved universe and the new improved earth after history has finished its course.
Second, the great capital city of God known as New Jerusalem does exist now. This vast city is God’s heavenly dwelling place. It exists now in an unseen realm. It may be much closer to us than we know, but we can’t see it. It’s in a realm that is invisible to our eyes. But it exists. The Bible talks about it in several places.
In the book of Hebrews, the Lord begins dropping some big clues and inklings to prepare us for this great city.
- Hebrews 11:9-10 says: By faith, (Abraham) made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
- Hebrews 11:16 says of the heroes of the Old Testament: They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
- Hebrew 12:22-23 says: But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.
- Hebrews 13:14 says: For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Twenty-one pages later, we come to the book of Revelation, and fifteen times in Revelation 21 and 22, New Jerusalem is called a city.
What is a city? It is a geographical location where large numbers of people live in an organized way. Every city that I know has a vibrant city life. It has cultural opportunities. It has neighborhoods having their own personalities. It has people coming and going. It has trade and commerce and government. Right now the city of New Jerusalem exists.
I believe this city exists right now, and that is where my dad and mom are. That’s where Katrina is. That’s where some of your loved ones are. They’re already in this city, which is lavishly described for us here in these two chapters. And one day, God will melt down the universe and re-create the starry heavens and the earth. And then this pre-existing great city of New Jerusalem will descend like a gigantic spaceship.
As soon as God has prepared the New Earth—full of flowers and colors and mountains and valleys and incredible landscapes—the great city of New Jerusalem will descend from Heaven, its brilliant foundations ready to clamp into its preformed 1,400-square-feet perimeter on the New Earth.
At this moment, the seen and the unseen realms will merge. Ephesians 1:9-10 say: “And he made known to us the mystery of His will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the time will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in Heaven and on Earth together under one head, even Christ” (1984 NIV).
Currently there are two realms—the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual. As New Jerusalem descends to New Earth, these two realms will merge into one.
The next verse—Revelation 21:3—says: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
The next verse, Revelation 21:4 says: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death nor mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.
I’ll have to leave it to you to study the physical description of this city. As you read through Revelation 21 and 22, you see the city as it descends from the sky, as it clamps into its preformed foundational infrastructure on the new earth. The foundations, walls, gates, and size of the city is described. Then you go inside and see what it looks like. The Lord describes its light and glistening glory. It tells us about the throne in the center of the city, and of the river that flows from the throne to water the earth.
And for those who know Christ, we’ll have eternal access to the new heavens and the new earth.
The traveler in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, whose name was Christian, came to a point in his journey when tall mountains stretched before him. At one of the vantage points on a hill named Clear, an old shepherd offered to let him look through his telescope. Christian’s hand was shaking, but as he looked through the lens he thought he saw something like a gate and also some of the glory of the Celestial City in the distance. He burst into song and continued his journey with courage.
And Lord, haste the day
when our faith shall be sight,
the cloud be rolled back like a scroll;
the trump shall resound
and the Lord shall descend.
Even so, it is well with our soul.