Category Archives: Essay

Freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence

The November Atlantic contains William Deresiewicz’ a review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The final paragraph explores the sense of being stuck that has been pulling me towards depression:

“How did we get stuck?” the authors ask—stuck, that is, in a world of “war, greed, exploitation [and] systematic indifference to others’ suffering”? It’s a pretty good question. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.” It isn’t clear to me how many possibilities are left: us now, in a world of polities whose populations number in the tens or hundreds of millions. But stuck we certainly are.

The Atlantic, November 2021, p.95

As for “that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence,” that may be that dimension of the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus most relevant to contemporary hearers, myself included. How might our congregations better nurture that freedom?

New wine & old wineskins

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Jesus; Mk. 2:22).

This little proverb’s immediate context is a dispute about fasting, and possibly it’s just about that. But it resonates throughout the larger context of Mark’s entire Gospel, inviting us to hear the passion narrative itself as new wine into old wineskins, with the wine and skins both lost (Jesus crucified; the Temple veil ripped open also as a sign of its coming destruction). Pulling the camera back further to take in Paul’s letters: the struggle to keep both the new wine of the Gospel and the old wineskins of its adherents intact (“What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ [1 Cor. 1:12]).

I suspect that an account of how the New Testament tries to keep wine and wineskins intact would be multi-dimensional. It would include the various ways in which Paul speaks of metamorphosis, e.g., “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). It would include the metaphor of new birth, for Nicodemus certainly grasps the scope of the challenge (Jn 3:4). And, earlier in the Gospels, John the Baptist.

John’s task: to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Mk. 1:3). What I hadn’t realized until I came at John via the wine/wineskins parable is that a crucial part of preparing the way was bridging the gap between popular expectations of God’s promised future and Jesus. The gap doesn’t disappear: even John wonders whether Jesus is the coming one (Matt 11:1-6). And there’s enough of a gap between popular expectations and John that perhaps the bulk of the religious authorities end up on the far shore (Mark 11:27-33). Nevertheless, John’s warnings that the status quo is unsustainable and that more compassion/justice is needed (Luke 3:7-14) can get folk moving in the right direction, even while leaving aside the more contentious questions of whether established notions of justice/righteousness need revision (they do), and whether outsiders will receive God’s mercy (they will). So John, unpalatable in so many ways, is a fundamental expression of God’s mercy or—to switch frames—God’s marketing. From popular expectations to Jesus: no way. From popular expectations to John to Jesus: that happens. “Prepare the way of the Lord” indeed.

Preserve both the new wine and the old wineskins? Borrowing from Billie Holiday, The difficult God’ll do right now; the impossible will take a little while.

Wondering about Mark 12:18-34

More wondering occasioned by our parish’s Mark study…

The challenge re paying taxes the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus sizzles and perfectly fits the scene Mark’s painted (12:13-17). In contrast, the Sadducees’ question (12:18-27) and the interchange with the scribe (12:28-34) seem anticlimactic. What might be going on?

We know little about the Sadducees, so, guesswork! Not believing in the resurrection, they think that it takes a special kind of stupid for Jesus to set himself on a collision course with the authorities. They express this, indirectly, with the question they pose out of indolent curiosity. But for Jesus and the Markan readers, an existential question: if no resurrection, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Jesus, answering directly, pulls out all the stops.

The interchange with the scribe. Matthew and Luke see the anticlimax problem, make the scribe an adversary (Mt 22:34-40), with Luke placing the story at an earlier point to segue to the Good Samaritan parable (Lk 10:25-28). Perhaps Mark is using the story to circle back to the challenge Jesus left unanswered (“By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 11:28) to give a partial answer: what do the Jews owe to God? Jesus is doing “these things” to love God and neighbor. And, looking ahead, the interchange invites the reader to contemplate the actions of the protagonists in Mark 14-15: who is loving God and neighbor (or not) and what does that love look like?

There’s a possible corollary to this in the scribe’s response (“and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’– this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” 12:33). Readers properly wonder what theological frames Mark might be offering to understand the Passion, and OT sacrifice is often suggested as a or the frame. Are the scribe’s words a nudge to understand the Passion first in terms of love?

Wondering about the Mark 4 Parables

Wondering occasioned by our parish’s Mark study…

As far as I can see, the parables aren’t announcing any sort of change in what God’s reign is like. All four look like possible ways of understanding segments of the history reflected in the OT—with the spectacular harvest as eschatological a reality in the one Testament as in the other. Where’s the secret/mystery?

What is “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11)?

And looking again at some commentaries, I doubt that there’s any single answer to this question.

A preliminary answer: Human response matters; nevertheless, the word will bear satisfying and surprising fruit. 

Clarifications: (1) Human response matters, not simply to the particular humans involved (“Will I be in or out?”), but to the overall success of the project. See the Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7.)

(2) “Nevertheless” not because God is the Author and the story can end however the author wants, but because God is more creative, persistent, committed (e.g., Isa 42:14-17).

(3) This mystery does not represent a change in divine strategy, so these parables are an appropriate lens for rereading the OT.

Corollaries: (1) The Mark 4 parables are a counterpoint to celebrations of the power of the divine word (Isa 55:8-11Wis 18:14-16, etc.). The celebrations are true enough; also true: the word is vulnerable.
Divine/human agency. I’m intrigued by the ways Mark explores this question, e.g., unbelief as limiting Jesus’ options (6:5-6 in Nazareth), unbelief not necessarily ending the conversation (9:24 the epileptic boy’s father). Isaiah 56-66 seems to keep the two in tension, with some texts highlighting divine agency, e.g., 63:1-6, others, human, e.g., 56:1-2. Divine agency seems to receive more emphasis. From what little I’ve read of Orthodox writers, their notion of divine/human synergy looks promising.

(2) The Mark 4 parables reject readings of the OT that expect a Borg-like divine entrance to set things right (“Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.”), readings that even the disciples were slow to give up (FireNow?)

As an imaginative portrayal, I like Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It’s been too long since I read it, but if I recall correctly Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker has some important observations re how artistic integrity limits the author’s freedom vis à vis the characters.

On a more personal level, st least three days in any given week I wonder if the value God apparently places on human freedom isn’t too costly for God and humanity. I can only conclude that God sees more value, takes more joy, in this creation in its present state, than I do. In any case, the litmus test for any serious hymnal revision is whether it includes Billie Holiday’s “Crazy he calls me” (“The difficult I’ll do right now / The impossible will take a little while”) as a portrait of God the Lover.

(3) Divine omnipotence does not override divine priorities. Human freedom seems to be one such priority. Ironically, some (most?) of the ringing celebrations of omnipotence, e.g., Isa 40:12-26, are prompted by the divine collision with human freedom, e.g., Isa 40:27. If God is omnipotent, God is also often flummoxed (Isa 5:4Mk 6:6a).

Puzzles: (1) The growing seed and mustard seed parables seem to imply some sort of cumulative progress, a progress not obvious in the histories of Israel and the Church. (Recall the Preacher!) On the other hand, real progress in specific areas (slavery, status of women).

(2) Is the “must” in Mk 8:31 related significantly to these issues of the power/vulnerability of the word (Corollary 1) and the divine priority of human freedom (Corollary 3)?

(3) Also re that “must:” how does the servant’s obedience (Isa 52:13-53:12) relate to the joyful celebrations surrounding it (52:7-1054:1-17). Perhaps “Isaiah” is saying as much as he/she knows.

Ecclesiastes in Ellen F. Davis‘ “Simple Gifts” (Getting involved with God pp. 104-120)

Some of us at St Dunstan’s (Madison, Wisconsin) have been reading Ecclesiastes together. Wondering how we might sum up what we’ve encountered, I reread Davis’ essay, which prompted the following.

“From the mainstream sages of Proverbs we may learn about the nature of ‘righteousness, justice, and equity’ (Proverbs 1:3), but Kohelet teaches us about humility. This is the core of his teaching: life can never be mastered, if ‘mastery’ means shaping it in conformity with our desires. It can only be enjoyed, when pleasures great and small come our way. Or, when enjoyment is not possible, then life must be endured. What Kohelet aims to instill in his students is the ability to receive the pleasures of life as the gift they are and to recognize God as sole Giver—‘For who eats or who feels anything, apart from him?’ (2:25).

“It is often said that the message of Ecclesiastes is best summed up as carpe diem, ‘seize the day.’ But the evidence belies that. The key verb in the book is not ‘seize’ but ‘give’, which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is ‘Receive the gift.’ We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God.”

Kohelet “specifically urges us to realize three forms of happiness in our lives: sensual pleasure (eating and drinking, sleep, sunlight), intimate relationships (friendship and conjugal love), and satisfaction in work.”

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (T. S. Eliot in “East Coker II”)

Very helpful, and noticeable overlap with William Brown’s description of the “fear of God” in the book (see June 12, 2020 post).

As is often noted, Kohelet (the teacher) slams the door on speculation re the afterlife (e.g., 3:20-21). In the context of the entire biblical witness, is this a defect? The teacher might argue not: why should we expect to receive/enjoy the afterlife if we’ve not learned to receive/enjoy this life?

The sharp tension in the book between the teacher’s theology (God is active; God “will bring every deed into judgment” [12:14]) and God’s inscrutability is like the tension in the petitionary psalms and Job. But the petitionary psalms typically call on God to conform to the psalmist’s theology, and Job—loudly, repeatedly—calls on God for an explanation. Why is the teacher silent? “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). To speculate: perhaps the teacher’s prayers are kept private. Perhaps the teacher regards teaching about or modeling prayer too likely to be mistaken for an attempt to wrest mastery from God.

Davis: “Kohelet has meditated long and hard on the first few chapters of Genesis,” noting hebel as also the name of Cain’s brother, and the role of death. We might also wonder about “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Kohelet (the teacher) has spent the book seeking knowledge through experience, with both negative and positive results. The negative: our ignorance is profound: the past (forgotten), the present (what God is up to), the future (the results of our actions especially). The positive: a stance or character that might be described in terms of humility, fear of God, receiving God’s gifts. The bottom line—in sharp contrast to the Genesis 3 story—“Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13).


This blog focuses largely on Scripture. Why might that be worth the trouble? This post, which I expect to revise periodically, notes possible answers.

Madeline L’Engle

So what do I believe about Scripture? I believe that it is true. What is true is alive and capable of movement and growth. Scripture is full of paradox and contradiction, but it is true, and if we fallible human creatures look regularly and humbly at the great pages and people of Scripture, if we are willing to accept truth rather than rigidly infallible statements, we will be given life, and life more abundantly. And we, like Joseph, will make progress towards becoming human. (Sold into Egypt)

Thomas Merton

The truth is that the surface of the Bible is not always even interesting. And yet when one does finally get into it, in one way or other, when one at last catches on to the Bible’s peculiar way of saying things, and even more to the things that are said, one finds that he is no longer simply questioning the book but being questioned by it.

If we approach it with speculative questions, we are apt to find that it confronts us in turn with brutally practical questions. If we ask it for information about the meaning of life, it answers by asking us when we intend to start living? Not that it demands that we present suitable credentials, that we prove ourselves in earnest, but more than that: we are to understand life not by analyzing it but by living it in such a way that we come to a full realization of our own identity. And this of course means a full realization of our relatedness to those with whom life has brought us into an intimate and personal encounter.

…the understanding of the Bible is, and should be, a struggle: not merely to find meanings that can be looked up in books of reference, but to come to terms personally with the stark scandal and contradiction in the Bible itself. It should not be our aim merely to explain these contradictions away, but rather to use them as ways to enter into the strange and paradoxical world of meanings and experiences that are beyond us and yet often extremely and mysteriously relevant to us. (Opening the Bible)

Simone Weil

For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today; that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms. (As cited in L’Engle’s And it was good)

But what about the texts that don’t show up in the Daily Office Lectionary?

Within our (Episcopal) tradition the Daily Office is the natural starting-point, and half a loaf is much better than no loaf. Full stop.

But its schedule of readings (lectionary) leaves out large chunks of the Old Testament, most notably, all of Song of Songs.

The attached PDF file presents one way the lectionary can be supplemented to achieve continuous readings of all the books in the pre-Reformation western canon within a two-year cycle.

Suggestions for improvement welcome!

The Conversion of the Nations and the Role of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22

A couple years ago some of us at St Dunstan’s (Madison WI) spent a number of weeks reading Revelation together. That sparked multiple questions, and ended up prompting this paper.

A number of texts in Rev. 21-22 including kings bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem (21:24), the tree of life whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations” (22:2), as well as the lists of those excluded (21:8, 27; 22:15) might suggest that in this new heaven and earth the conversion of the nations is still underway. Under the usual reading of Rev. 20 conversion is no longer an issue, and the witness of these texts is muted. But Old Testament visions of the “New Jerusalem” (Isa. 2 and 65 in particular, but also elements in Ezek. 40-48) suggest that these texts are central to New Jerusalem’s role. Equally important: these visions suggest not so much the “end of history” as its definitive reset. This essay reviews Bauckham’s treatment of the conversion of the nations in Revelation, reviews current treatments of the above-mentioned texts, recalls a series of “New Jerusalem” texts in the Old Testament potentially relevant to our reading of Rev. 21-22, offers a revised description of New Jerusalem’s role in Rev. 21-22, and explores some implications of this revised description for the reading of the rest of Revelation.

The Conversion of the nations

In the last two chapters of Revelation John sees a new heaven, a new earth, and the new Jerusalem, receives an angelically-guided presentation of the new Jerusalem, formally parallel to the angelically-guided presentation of Babylon (17:1-19:10); and the book concludes.[1] Within these chapters there are a number of verses—printed in the handout—that interpreters often find problematic and that relate thematically to the conversion of the nations.

By way of introduction, recall Bauckham’s “The Conversion of the Nations” in his book The Climax of Prophecy (1993). He writes: “the question of the conversion of the nations—not only whether it will take place but also how it will take place—is at the centre of the prophetic message of Revelation” (1993, 238). That such a conversion takes place is evident in texts like Rev. 7:9ff (“a great multitude…from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”).[2] How this takes place is less clear. For Bauckham chapter 11 is key: after the two witnesses appear, are martyred, and are vindicated, “the rest [of the city’s inhabitants] were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven” (v.13). The repentance the judgments fail to elicit is secured by martyrdom. It’s an attractive reading, but I wonder if Bauckham doesn’t slide too easily over the great earthquake that accompanies the witnesses’ ascension: terror and giving glory to the God of heaven might as easily follow from the earthquake. Nevertheless, I want to stay with Bauckham’s question: how the conversion of the nations happens.

Loose ends in Rev. 21-22

By most accounts, if conversion happens, it happens before the great white throne (20:11-15). That looks like the final sorting out of the righteous and wicked, which brings us, in turn, to the verses in the handout.

After the New Jerusalem is introduced at the beginning of ch. 21, we encounter these verses that suggest the continuing presence of both evil and healing:

217 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (italics mine)

2112 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites;

2124 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

2127 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

222b On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

2215 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

Why are the wicked still onstage, with angels guarding the gates of the city? Weren’t the kings of the earth dispatched in chapter 19? So Charles in his 1920 commentary wrote of Rev. 20:4-22:21 “These chapters have hitherto been a constant source of insurmountable difficulty to the exegete. They are full of confusion and contradiction if the text is honestly dealt with” (1920, II.144).

Interpretive strategies

We might say that there are two strategies for dealing with these texts. The first seeks a congruent text in Rev. 19:11ff in which Charles’ “confusion and contradiction” are eliminated; the second recognizes a semi-congruent text, which implies, in turn, a different way of understanding how the visions work. Examples of the first strategy would include

  • Source-critical analyses in which each source presents a sequential arrangement, the strategy Charles attributes to “most of the leading German scholars of the past thirty years” (1920, II.146)
  • Large-scale rearrangements of the text, e.g., Charles, who attributes the editing of 20:4-22:21 to “a faithful but unintelligent disciple” (1920, II.147). Charles repositions all but 21:7-8 in the list just cited in chapter 20, a description of millennial[3]
  • Placement of the lake of fire outside the city walls such that its inhabitants can enter the city, e.g., Rissi.[4] But nothing in the text itself suggests the possibility of this spatial collocation.
  • Alternative readings that neutralize the problematic verses.[5]

As examples of these neutralizing readings we might note the following:

Rev 22:2. Aune (on the leaves): “The allusion is simply mechanical, however, since there is no real place in the eschatological scheme of Revelation for ‘the healing of the nations’ construed as their conversion” (1998, III.1178).[6]

Rev. 22:15. Caird (on the “outside”): “When the new heaven and earth finally comes, there will be no outside for them to occupy; they will have disappeared into oblivion” (1966, 286).[7]

Leaving 21:8 aside (set in the future from the perspective of the hearers), these neutralizing interpretations fail to convince. So commentators may—sometimes apologetically—leave these tensions in place.[8] I would argue that left in place, these verses contribute to a coherent vision within chapters 21-22, which we can bring into focus recalling some of the Old Testament visions of a “New Jerusalem.”

Old Testament visions of the New Jerusalem and Revelation 21-22

Rev. 21:1-8

Isaiah 65:17-25 opens with this divine declaration:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. (Isa. 65:17)

This suggests a global project. But the following verses focus on Jerusalem (“I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy” v.18), and the oracle ends speaking of “my holy mountain.” So the preparation of this essay has me wondering about how these global and Jerusalem-centric notes hold together.

What’s interesting about the oracle for our purposes is the description of what is new:

21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Isa. 65:21-22)

In this text’s world—like the world in which most folk live today—you can’t assume that if you build a house you’ll live in it, or eat the fruit of what you’ve planted. Who knows when a lawyer from the capital or an armed band will show up? That assumption is so far from daily experience that it would mean nothing less than “new heavens and a new earth.” Here we’re pretty clearly dealing with renewal of the existing cosmos, rather than replacement.[9] This may help us calibrate John’s language of “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1).[10]

Rev. 21:9-22:9

In v.12 we encounter “and at the gates twelve angels.” Isa. 62:6 (“Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels”) is often identified as the allusion, an identification strengthened by rabbinic interpretations of these sentinels as angelic.[11] The more interesting question is why introduce angels at all, and the probable answer is that this is another example of John transposing and augmenting Ezekiel’s vision of the temple to the city.[12] Ezekiel’s temple gates look very much like the elaborate and very defensible city gates of Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo.[13] Nothing unclean will pass. John goes Ezekiel one better: angels, the basis for the confident assertions in 21:27 and 22:15.

Turning to vv.24-27, what the God who dwells in Jerusalem will finally do with the nations is, perhaps, one of the more difficult open questions in the Old Testament, depending on both divine and human decisions. In Revelation we hear “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24), which captures two important elements we meet in Isaiah.[14] For the first part, recall Isa. 2:2-4

2 In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:2-4)

This text, present also in Micah, could take the lion’s share of our time. On the one hand, it echoes the various ways Zion theology appropriated the cosmic mountain traditions.[15] On the other, it echoes a specifically Israelite sense of mission evident in texts like Gen. 12:1-3, Deut. 4:6, and Ps. 87. So Ps. 87:4: “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; / Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia– /’This one was born there,’ they say.” This is, I think, one of the more profound visions of what Jerusalem is for.

In Rev. 21:4 notice “will walk by its light.” Bauckham argues that John’s allusion to Isa. 60:3 is colored by Isa 2:3, 5 so that “[t]he glory of God as the light of the New Jerusalem is not just a beacon that attracts the nations to it. It is the light by which they live” (1993, 315).

As for the second part of Rev. 21:24, consider:

3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (Isa. 60:3-6)

‘Glory’ (doxa) in Rev. 21:24 can be understood as honor or wealth. I like Mathewson’s suggestion that the ambiguity is intentional (2003, 168). Both the honor and the wealth that formerly flowed to Babylon now flow to Jerusalem. Nor is the double meaning accidental. An integral part of the nations proclaiming the praise of the Lord is the bringing of gold and frankincense. As a later Jewish teacher would put it, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Rev. 22:2 introduces the tree of life, concluding “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” This recalls Ezekiel’s temple vision with that marvelous river that starts under the temple and flows eastward, swelling as it goes, until it turns the Dead Sea sweet. Ezekiel pays particular attention to the trees along the river’s banks:

12 On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek. 47:12)

John has focused the image: for the healing of the nations. So within the unit 21:9-22:9 this image and that of the nations walking by the light of the city dovetail. There is ongoing instruction and healing.

There are, of course, any number of possible readings of the “new Jerusalems” described in the prophets.[16] The possible reading—selective reading—that, I think, Revelation adopts—is Jerusalem not marking the end of history, but Jerusalem restored so it can play its proper role in the conversion of the nations. Inside, paradise regained, the paradise to which the Jerusalem temple always aspired to witness. Outside, the nations no longer in a position to subvert or destroy Jerusalem, but in a position to receive the gifts of the God who dwells there. So 22:15—the last of the verses listed in the handout—reaffirms Jerusalem’s protection so that it can continue doing its proper work.

In sum, the specific points of continuity between these OT visions and Rev. 21-22:

  • Jerusalem restored & protected from future profanation
  • The pilgrimage of the nations to Jerusalem to honor the true God
  • The pilgrimage of the nations to Jerusalem to receive instruction and healing

In other words, in John’s reading of these Old Testament visions New Jerusalem is the place for the conversion of the nations. There’s life inside and outside the walls, and traffic through the gates. Perhaps all who enter remain inside; perhaps there is traffic in both directions (recalling the survivors sent to the nations in Isa. 66:19) as light and healing are brought out to Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, etc.[17]

At the same time, John does not offer greater detail as to how this works, and I wonder if that too is not important. Georgi makes the intriguing suggestion that the divine speech in 21:5-8 breaks the frame of the vision and is addressed to the entire world, the highpoint of the entire book.[18] The core of the speech is an invitation: “To the thirsty I will give water.” In the nature of invitations human freedom is in play, perhaps precluding greater detail from the seer.

Rev. 19-22

Our exploration of Rev. 21-22 started with various commentators’ treatments of texts in this unit in apparent conflict with the events described in chapters 19-20. If 21-22 portrays a reset of history, where does that leave Rev. 19:11-20:15 in general and the great white throne scene (20:11-15) in particular?

The problem of congruence in Revelation is not new. Multiple fates are described for Babylon (earthquake in 16:19; habitat for desert creatures in 18:2; pestilence, famine, and burning in 18:8; burning with eternally ascending smoke in 19:3), which present problems if interpreted literally (Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation 1993, 21).[19] There is an ongoing discussion regarding whether the sequences of seals, trumpets, and bowls are to be understood as sequential or more-or-less overlapping.

Rev. 19:11-22:21 likewise resists a congruent reading. There are a series of scenes including the battle in 19:11ff, the great white throne in 20:11ff, the New Jerusalem in 21:9ff. Each is internally congruent; put together, the rough edges are noticeable. It is something like a mixed-media collage. The scenes are presented as sequential; Barr discerns an ancient plot in 12-22.[20] And the semi-coherence of 19:11-22:21 as a whole tells us something about how to read the individual scenes.

Why the semi-coherence? Various answers are possible, and they may be complementary. Koester thinks it reflects multiple possible futures[21] and the author’s strong parenetic concern (2014, 833, 855). Thomas & Macchia: a testimony to divine grace. [22]

It may help to recognize that the pair of scenes depicting Babylon and Jerusalem and the great white throne scene are addressing two quite different questions. The Babylon/Jerusalem pair addresses the question of where human history is headed with the corresponding existential question of which city deserves the hearers’ allegiance. The great white throne scene addresses the question of whether individuals will be held to account before the God whom these hearers worship, which has a different sort of existential dimension. John gives clear answers to both questions: human history—despite appearances—is headed toward the New Jerusalem; God will hold all individuals accountable for their actions.

So while the scenes in Rev. 19-22 are presented as sequential, the rough edges signal that the conventions of additional genres may be in play.[23] The Babylon/New Jerusalem and great white throne scenes are something like a series of parables: “It’s like this with the kingdom of God.”

Speaking generally of the imagery of Revelation, Bauckham suggests:

Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realize that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response. (The Theology of the Book of Revelation 1993, 20)

That suggestion speaks to the challenge of reading these scenes. So the reading offered here of Rev. 21-22 as congruent and of Rev. 19:11-22:21 as semi-congruent often parallels that offered by Barr, Bauckham, Koester and Thomas & Macchia.

If something like this is true, the Great White Throne and the New Jerusalem as two distinct and complementary visions of the human future, then perhaps we might recognize the author’s artful mirroring of the beginning of the human story. Genesis opens with two creation accounts. In Genesis 1 everything is properly sorted out. Everything is good. In the creation story in Genesis 2 the good is something to be achieved, and human decisions play a role in the sorting. There is process. Ostensibly they are sequential; substantively, complementary.

The Conversion of the nations

Circling back to the conversion of the nations, I have read the New Jerusalem as a primary means. With the descent of the New Jerusalem the peoples of the earth have a new potential source for orientation. But what are they supposed to do until that happens? That may be where the churches in Revelation 2-3 come in. They too are an eschatological reality, a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem. The nations and the rulers don’t need to wait for the descent of the heavenly city. They simply need to pay attention to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, etc. And so it is of the utmost importance that they see something useful—hence the passionate exhortations in chapters 2-3. So in the book Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of the Lord’s house becomes the mandate, the blueprint, for these congregations. And the exhortation at the close of that vision is the exhortation addressed to the book’s readers: “O house of Jacob, / come, let us walk / in the light of the Lord” (Isa 2:5).

In support of this link between Rev. 2-3 and 21-22 I return to and close with the divine speech in 21:5-8. While it occurs in the context of the vision of the new heaven, earth, and Jerusalem, John is addressed directly: “Write this” (v.5). Both that imperative “write” and “the one who conquers” (v.7) recall the messages to each of the seven churches. In the middle: v. 6b “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” That invitation is often linked to Isa. 55:1 and various Johannine texts.[24] Its fulfillment lies in the future—but not exclusively in the future. The Johannine echoes with their realized eschatology remind the hearer that that water is on offer now: in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, etc.

In this paper I’ve tried to bring John’s vision into focus. Interpretation of that vision is a separate task. What might that look like? Like the New Jerusalem in John’s vision, the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea have been called and equipped also for the conversion of the nations.  The New Jerusalem, the seven churches: they are perhaps the same primary means for that conversion.

Works Cited

Aune, David E. Revelation. III vols. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

Barr, David L. Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation. 2nd edition. Salem OR: Polebridge Press, 2012.

Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy. London: T & T Clark, 1993.

—. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1993.

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Louisville: John Knox, 1989.

Caird, G. B. The Revelation of St. John the Divine. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Charles, R. H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John. II vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920.

Ford, J. Massyngberde. Revelation. Garden City: Doubleday, 1975.

Georgi, Dieter. “Die Visionen vom himmlischen Jerusalem in Apk 21 und 22.” In Kirche: Festschrift für Günther Bornkamm zum 75. Geburtstag, by D Lührman, & G. Strecker (eds), 351-72. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1980.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Levenson, Jon D. Sinai and Zion. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985.

Mathewson, David. A New Heaven and a New Earth: The Meaning and Function of the Old Testament in Revelation 21.1-22.5. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003.

Rissi, Mathias. The Future of the world: An Exegetical study of Revelation 19:11-22:15. Naperville IL: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 1972.

Rowland, Christopher C. The Book of Revelation. Vol. X, in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, edited by Leander E. Keck, 915-1105. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015.

Smalley, Stephen S. The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse. London: SPCK, 2005.

Thomas, John Christopher, and Frank D. Macchia. Revelation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Tõniste, Külli. The Ending of the Canon: A Canonical and Intertextual Reading of Revelation 21-22. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel. II vols. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.


[1] Rev. 21:1-8, 21:9-22:9 and 22:10-21, although there is little agreement as to when the “end matter” begins.

[2] All citations are from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.

[3] Gaechter and Ford, building on Charles, take all the verses listed above as a description of millennial Jerusalem (Ford 1975, xv, 38-39).

[4] Rissi on Rev. 21:8: it “makes clear how John conceives of the ‘outside’: an existence in the lake of fire” (1972, 68). Later: “the world outside the walls of Jerusalem is the lake of fire…John announces nothing less than that even for this world of the lost the doors remain open” (1972, 74) (italics mine).

[5] Rev. 21:7-8. It’s a given that one of the aims of chapters 4-22 is to motivate obedience to the exhortations of chapters 2-3. (Boring (1989, 217) and Thomas & Macchia, citing Gundry and Murphy, (2016, 370) argue that the list is tailored to reflect the challenges faced by the book’s audience.) It is not difficult to understand this verse in these terms: the future orientation of vv.7-8 reflecting the perspective of the audience rather than conflicting sequentially with the consignment of the unrighteous to the lake of fire in 20:15.[5] (Cf. Rowland, who appeals at this point to “the poetic license of apocalypse” (2015, 1091).) Were this the only problematic text we’d be having a different conversation.

Rev. 21:12. In any other context we would recognize the angels as guardians (bouncers), and they are so recognized by some commentators. (Thomas & Macchia (2016, 376). Smalley first recognizes the guarding function (2005, 548), but later discounts it (2005, 559).) But Koester: “Nevertheless the idea that the angels guard the gates is unlikely, since the city descends after the devil and the wicked have been banished and evil no longer threatens” (2014, 814-815).

Rev 21:24-26. Smalley (on the apparent reappearance of the kings): “the seer’s audience is shown believers from every possible background entering into a final covenant fellowship with God through the Lamb” (2005, 559) (italics mine). Tõniste adopts Mounce’s suggestion: “John retained some OT language not entirely appropriate for the new setting” (2016, 175).

[6] Similarly Beale: “[T]here will be no more death or pain to be healed from in the new creation (21:4)” (1999, 1108). Cf. Tõniste: “In this side of the story there is much brokenness in humankind that needs healing, even after God has redeemed and renewed all things. The experiences gained through history will remain with the human kind as painful memories, and they need to be healed continually” (2016, 180).

[7] Likewise Tõniste (2016, 174). Cf. Koester: “read descriptively…the verse is incongruous” (2014, 855).

[8] Bauckham: “the vision of the New Jerusalem supersedes all the visions of judgment and brings to fulfilment the theme of the conversion of the nations which was set out in 11:13; 14:14-16; 15:4” (1993, 318). Smalley “…but even in the dimension of the new Jerusalem there will be those who choose to remain outside its gates (21.26-27; 22.15), and who will therefore need the opportunity to accept ‘leaves of healing’ by which to embrace God’s universal invitation of love” (2005, 563). Thomas & Macchia: “Perhaps this healing would even include the healing of the wounds of the nations incurred in their rebellion against God and the Lamb” (2016, 388).

[9] Contra Mathewson, who describes the Isaiah text as “ambiguous” (2003, 35). Koester thinks the categories of renewal and replacement inadequate, and he may be right (2014, 803).

[10] While John does not focus on justice and righteousness in the same way that Isaiah does, John’s list of merchandise in that global economy (“gold, silver, jewels…horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives” 18:11-13) is suggestive. Cf. Koester (2014, 795).

[11] Exod. R. 18.5; Pes. R. 35.2; for these and further detail see Mathewson (2003, 103).

[12] Cf. Mathewson: “John’s use of Ezek. 40-48 reveals a propensity to transfer Ezekiel’s temple imagery to the city of Rev. 21” (2003, 102).

[13] See Zimmerli for a comparison of the blueprints (1983, II, 353).

[14] For allusions to additional texts in and outside Isaiah—particularly Zech. 14—see Mathewson (2003, 163-183).

[15] See, conveniently, Levenson (1985, 115ff). For discussion of various expressions of the Völkerwallfahrt traditions see Mathewson (2003, 163-183).

[16] Cf. the brief survey offered by Rissi (1972, 47-51).

[17] Cf. Thomas & Macchia: “This comprehensive understanding of the healing of the nations indicates that provision for the conversion of the nations is part of the very fabric of the New Jerusalem” (2016, 388).

[18] “Der Gottesspruch in Kap. 21 geht über den in Kap. 1 schon der Form nach weit hinaus, den in 21,5-8 is nicht mehr der Seher der Adressat, sondern die ganze Welt. So ist 21,5-8 der Höhepunkt des ganzen Werkes, die krönende Gottesrede. (1980, 359).

[19] Barr counts six tellings of Babylon’s fall (2012, 210).

[20] “Appearance of Dragon or pair of Dragons / Chaos and disorder / The attack / Appearance of the champion / The champion vanquished / The Dragon’s reign / The recovery of the champion / Renewed battle and victory of the champion / Fertility of the restored order / Procession and victory shout / Temple built for the warrior God / Banquet (wedding) / Manifestation of the champion’s universal reign” (2012, 214; cf. 21).

[21] “Revelation provides two contrasting visions of the future.… Both futures remain open; the question is how the world will respond” (2014, 833).

[22] “There is a sense of finality about God’s eschatological judgment in chapter 20, but the open gates facing in the direction of the opposition say something profound about the endurance of the divine offer of grace” (2016, 621).

[23] Barr speaks of rethinking the story (2012, 258; cf. 245).

[24] Specifically, Jn. 4:10-14; 6:35; 7:37-38. See Mathewson for commentaries. Mathewson makes the helpful observation that “as a gift” reflects, specifically, Isa. 55:1 (2003, 80-82).