Connections 11.20.2016: The Perfect City

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Revelation 22:1-7

When I read about John’s vision of the new and perfect city, or about Ezekiel’s similar vision in chapter 47, I picture the settings from books like C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Each of these books comes early in a series, and at some point they all feature a beautiful, picturesque place where everything seems good and calm and right. The characters in these places have food, water, and order. They have nature and wonder. They feel safe and secure. There’s an element of magic in all of them.

It’s no coincidence that these novels contain what we’d call biblical imagery; all three authors wove their Christian faith deeply into their stories. Inevitably, though, none of the places in these books is able to sustain the beauty and the magic. Darkness enters them all. Lewis’s forest is conquered by the White Witch. L’Engle’s orderly little planet is actually ruled by the all-controlling IT. Tolkien’s Shire is invaded by the One Ring and its accompanying evil. The rest of the stories in each series detail the characters’ attempts to fight for good—with great sacrifice.

The city John sees in Revelation is like these places in some ways. It is well supplied, beautiful, and safe. It seems too good to be true. We might expect darkness to fall at some point because darkness adds conflict, and every great story has conflict. But darkness doesn’t fall in the city. The reason is that John’s vision shows the finale of God’s great story. The beauty was there in the beginning. It was marred by conflict. At the climax of the story, Jesus broke into human history and showed us all a new way. We still live in the time of resolution that followed, and it still has dark places of tears and fear and uncertainty. But we can be assured of one thing: the end of the story is coming, and it is breathtaking. When it comes, “nothing accursed” will ever touch humanity again (Rev 22:3). It will be us and God in a grand ending that lasts for eternity.

Discussion

1. If you have read any of the novels by Lewis, L’Engle, or Tolkien, what spiritual themes did you find in their settings, characters, conflicts, and resolutions?
2. Why do you think people are drawn to stories? How do stories help us better understand who we are as humans and what our existence means?
3. Why do you think John received this vision of the future perfect city? What do the descriptions of the city mean to you? Do you think they are literal or more figurative? Why?
4. What is happening in your life or the world today that seems dark and troubling? How can you find hope in John’s vision for times like these?
5. How can you more fully take part in God’s grand story? How can you draw others into the story too?

Reference Shelf

In Ezekiel 47, the prophet saw a river flowing from beneath the temple in the restored Jerusalem. On both sides of the river “grow all kinds of trees for food” whose “leaves [are] for healing” (47:12). This river has life-giving properties, nourishing the trees on its banks and turning the lifeless, foul waters of the Dead Sea into waters teeming with fish.

In Ezekiel’s vision, as is true in several apocalyptic texts, hope for the future is expressed in terms of a renewed garden of Eden or paradise. Ezekiel’s river is a part of that paradise motif. Genesis 2:10 speaks of a river flowing out of Eden to water the garden. John includes the river in his vision also, but he goes even further with the Eden imagery than did Ezekiel. John changes Ezekiel’s trees on the sides of the river into the tree of life, an obvious reference to the tree of life in the midst of the garden of Eden (Gen 2:9). In Genesis, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the tree of life. To do so would have meant that they would live forever (Gen 3:22). Now in the new Jerusalem, where the redeemed will live forever, the presence of the tree of life is appropriate. It is no longer forbidden for food, but rather it produces twelve kinds of fruit each month, apparently for the enjoyment of the city’s inhabitants. The fruit from the tree is the fulfillment of the promise made to the faithful in Revelation 2:7.

Location of the Tree of Life

Exactly how John pictures the trees in relation to the street in the city and the river is not clear. If a period is placed after “city” in v. 2 (as in the NRSV; ancient Greek manuscripts had no punctuation marks), then the text indicates that the river flows down the middle of the street, and the trees are on each side of the river. If, however, a period is placed after “Lamb,” then the sentence would read, “In the midst of its street and on each side of the river is the tree of life,” perhaps meaning that the street and the river run parallel to each other, with the trees in between them.

Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 419, 421.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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