Heaven will be paradise, shared with God and his worshiping people who remain faithful to God’s Word and hold fast to God’s promise to come and repay the righteous and unrighteous for their deeds. The Bible closes with a vision calling us to believe, hope, trust, and wait for God to fulfill his promise.
Introduction – “I will fight no more forever.” Famous words spoken in 1877 by Chief Joseph, the leader of the Nez Perce tribe as they laid down their weapons and surrendered to the United States Army forcing them off their ancestral land in the Wallowa Valley, Oregon Territory. Named Thunder-Rolling-Down-the-Mountain at birth, Joseph came by his Christian name when his father, Joseph the Elder, converted to Christianity and was baptized. His father had an unprecedented relationship with the white Americans, winning a treaty that created a new reservation for his tribe. But when gold was discovered on the land, the US government broke the treaty and offered the tribe a much smaller and different reservation. Betrayed, Joseph the Elder denounced his white friends and destroyed his Bible, and vowed never to move from his people’s home.
When Joseph the Elder died and his son Chief Joseph assumed leadership, war was imminent. So he led his tribe toward asylum in Canada in one of history’s great military retreats, winning battles against incredible odds. But they didn’t quite make it. Facing the possibly of his tribe’s extinction, Chief Joseph surrendered, never to fight again. He spend the rest of his life as a tribal diplomat trying to renegotiate a reservation on his ancient homeland. He failed. Looking back, he said, “It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and the broken promises.”
Every single person knows what it feels like to be a victim of a broken promise. It hurts. And it hurts to the degree that you loved and trusted the promise maker. Broken or delayed promises have a way of making us cynics and skeptics. They erode our capacity to trust. In a world where words are cheap, where promises are made flippantly and broken casually, we have a hard time believing any promises, especially ones tied to our hopes and dreams. Perhaps this is why it can be so hard to believe God’s promises to make right everything that is wrong with the world. We simply don’t want to be hurt again. But our problem is we must believe promises. We make our plans and build our lives around promises. Civilization itself exists on the fragile foundation of promises. Business, economics, marriage, friendship, politics, morality, and religion are impossible unless society agrees to trust their promises. Yet people often break promises. Even basically trustworthy people have only limited ability to guarantee a promise will be kept. Is there a promise we can fully trust and confidently build our lives upon? Is there anyone who is a trustworthy promise keeper?
I. Starting at the End of Promise
A. A vision of heaven (vv. 1-5)
John has a heavenly vision of the creation curse removed, where the river of living water, the tree of life, and all God’s servants worship in the light of God’s glory. Nothing will be accursed. Worship will be face to face with God, whose people have his name imprinted on their foreheads. Both God and his servants belong to each other. They share the most intimate fellowship. Darkness is no more, for the light of God’s countenance fills the eternal city with the brightness of his glory. In his light, God’s people will serve forever as priestly kings over the new heaven and earth.
B. A promise from God (vv. 6-17)
Jesus promises he is coming soon and will bring his recompense to the righteous and unrighteous. His word is absolutely trustworthy and true because he is God. He has proven himself time and again. Until he comes spiritual warfare will continue. The unrighteous will harden in their character and deeds. The righteous will be strengthened in who they are and what they do. But Jesus who sees all from beginning to end will balance the scales of justice and repay every person for what he has done. To those who are washed clean he will grant entry through the city gates and access to the tree of life. All those who are unwashed of their evil and filthy ways remain outside the city, apart from God’s blessing. Jesus, the root and offspring of King David, testifies this promise is true. As the bright morning star, he is the promise of a dawning day and age when all who are thirsty for God come to Jesus and drink freely of his grace.
C. A warning and charge (vv. 18-21)
Don’t change the words of Revelation. If you do, you will fall victim to all the terrible plagues described in this book: the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the trumpet judgments, the bowls of wrath, the battle of Armageddon, and all the rest. Don’t add or subtract from Revelation, and don’t follow lying teachers who twist God’s word or cast doubt on God’s trustworthiness. Instead, believe and keep God’s promises until Jesus comes. Long for his return. Pray that day may come quickly. Wait patiently. Be long-suffering. Live obediently by his grace until the end.
II. What is the Story of Promise?
A. Act One: Creation
The world was once a paradise—undeveloped, but still a place where nothing was cursed. In the land of Eden, which stretched well beyond the borders of what we know as Israel, God planted a garden. It was a huge place, not like a backyard or even a farm, but more like a national park, with four rivers irrigating it. God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to exercise dominion over it. God assigned them duties of cultivation, guardianship, and expansive development. Their charge was to be priests and rulers over the whole earth, beginning in the garden where God started them off. For faithful service God promised to reward them with continuous free access to the garden’s tree of life. So as long as humanity remained faithful to their creation mandate and avoided the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God would live in their presence forever. It seems God’s promise implied a probationary period. If Adam proved himself faithful, then God would confirm Adam in righteousness and glorify creation in holiness. God administered his promise by making a covenant.
B. Acts Two: Fall
1. Although God remained faithful to his covenant promise, Adam and Eve didn’t. Satan appeared as a serpent and convinced them God’s promise was not trustworthy. The serpent lied about God’s promise, claiming true life would only come if they broke covenant with their Creator. When God’s servants believed Satan’s lying promise that life comes from rebelling and pursuing selfish plans, they brought the curse and all its deathly consequences upon themselves and the whole earth. Even though God had every right to put an end to the story of promise then and there, he decided to display his magnificent grace by making a new promise: another covenant, not of works, but of grace. He promised to put strife between the serpent and the woman, and between his children and hers. Satan would bruise his heel, but he would crush Satan’s head (Gen 3:15). This new promise was good news (some call it the first hint of the gospel), for in it God prophesied his plan to make the world right again and restore fellowship with humanity. The prophecy was a unilateral promise. God would surely make it happen! But until the time of fulfillment, God’s people could not have access to God’s garden sanctuary and the tree of life. So they have to leave.
2. Spiritual warfare continued as those who believed Satan’s lying promise clashed with God’s servants. The history of man outside the garden is full of violence, murder, sexual exploitation, theft, blasphemy, idolatry, and every manifestation of falsehood. Clearly the trajectory of humanity was toward greater and uglier falsehood. Every Bible story in the early chapters of Genesis testifies that if God will not act upon his promise soon, then Satan will win and God’s promise will be for naught.
C. Act Three: Israel
1. But God did act upon his ancient promise to save the world. Beginning with Abraham’s family, God’s promise started taking shape. His plan was to choose the children in the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel to be a holy people who would show the world how awesome life in the Garden of Eden was supposed to have been, and will be someday. The children of Israel were set apart to be a priestly people who would believe God’s good promise. They would exercise dominion over creation by cultivating, guarding, and expanding the kingdom of God. Not by the cursed methods of the lying promise (rebellion and selfishness), but by the blessed methods of trusting and keeping God’s promise. The best part of the plan was that God would dwell in his new garden land with his people Israel. God even designed the architecture of the temple to resemble a garden like the one in Eden. It reminded Israel and the world that God had not forgotten his promise, and that one day he would recreate the world into a beautiful flourishing city where he will live with his servants forever.
2. Israel was not up to the task. Like Adam and Eve, the nation chose to pursue its own vision of paradise rather than trust God’s promise. For centuries God sent his servants the prophets to Israel, each calling the people to believe God’s promise. If they believed and trusted God’s promise, blessing would follow. But if they pursued Satan’s lying promise the prophets warned them God’s curse would follow. When it became obvious that Israel had become hardened in her rejection of God’s promise and reached the point of no return, God sent the curses of his covenant promise on them. Once again, he exiled his people away from his presence in the garden home land until the promised day when God would come again to live with his people in a new garden-temple.
D. Act Four: Jesus & the Church
Israel eventually returned to the land of Eden, but it wasn’t much of a garden. It was more like a wasteland. They had a temple without God’s presence. They had a country without dominion to rule. And they had priests, religious teachers, and rulers who believed God wouldn’t keep his promise unless Israel somehow earned his favor. This way of thinking was actually a form of the ancient lying promise: if you want to live in God’s garden, then you’ve got to be god-like and start building it yourself. It was a dark time for the few who patiently waited on God to unilaterally fulfill his promise. And then suddenly, the wait was over! With the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God came to dwell with his people. After all that had happened throughout redemptive history, God’s promise was beginning to come true! As the dwelling place of God, Jesus was the promised temple. As the source of living water, Jesus was the promised garden of God. As the priest of God, Jesus shed his own blood on the cross to cleanse his sinful people, and set them free to worship God in righteousness and holiness. As the seed of the woman, Jesus suffered Satan’s bite when he died on the cross, but Jesus crushed the serpent’s head when he rose from the dead. And as the King of kings, Jesus appointed his cleansed servants to reign with him over all the earth. As he reigns from heaven, his servants testify to the trustworthiness of God’s promise and the truth that Jesus is steadily fulfilling God’s promise to save the world. On the last day he will transform our home land into a heavenly paradise. Until the day when paradise is regained, the Church exists to believe the promise, testify to the promise, and live faithfully to the promise.
E. Act Five: New Creation
Someday the story of promise will end happily ever after. Jesus will return to earth and finish God’s promised plan to save the world. Darkness will flee. The curse will disappear. Worship will be unstained by sin. God’s people will share the most intimate fellowship possible with their God. He will live in the midst of his people in an eternal temple-city. It will be more beautiful and live-giving than any garden you can imagine because it will be home. They will drink from the river of life and eat from the tree of life. He will be their God in Christ, and they will be his people in Christ.
III. Why the Story of Promise?
A. To reveal what heaven will be like (vv. 1-5)
The Church’s future hope is worshiping God in heaven where the curse is no more and life springs eternal. The image of a garden-city awakens our hope for paradise restored: unbroken fellowship with God and people. But it is more than a restoration, but a transformation because the goal is not a return to the Garden of Eden, but to an eternal temple-city that is the fulfillment of humanity’s creation mandate to cultivate, guard, and develop the garden. The city is a garden that is tended, kept, beautified, and blessed by the Lord for his people. Read in the context of Revelation 21, the eternal city fills the new earth. This vision of the new heaven and earth not only reveals how God intends to fulfill his promises, it also deepens our longing and desire for it. Such imagery in Revelation’s promises to comfort the believer during times of persecution, trial, and suffering. Heaven is the grand promise of hope. Heaven is the promise of a homeland.
There is a saying that you can never go home. I think this is partially true (at least in this life). Thirteen years ago I had the opportunity to visit my childhood stomping grounds. It was fun to wax nostalgic as I took my wife on the tour. “That’s where I went to school. This is where I used to live. Here’s the park where my friends and I used to play all day.” But everything was different. Nothing looked or felt like I remembered it. Things seemed smaller, less colorful. My friends and family weren’t there anymore. In a word, it wasn’t home. Yet I couldn’t shake the thought that God had planted in my soul this yearning for a true home, and that nothing in this life would satisfy that yearning. That’s what heaven will be like: a promised land where all your deepest and purest God-given longings are met. God will fulfill every holy longing in heaven. You’ll be home at last.
B. To describe who will enter heaven (vv. 6-17)
1. Remember only those who worship God alone will enter heaven. This is easy to say but hard to do! Even the apostle John made the mistake of worshiping an angel from heaven. If John could fall into false worship, there must be a subtle yet very real danger of even faithful Christians falling into idolatry. Listen to the angel: “You must not do that! Worship God.” The only way to worship God appropriately is to “wash your robe.” Does that mean you clean yourself up to come to God? No, no, no. A Christian is one who admits he has filthy clothes stained with sin. He knows there is no way to be righteous and holy unless he washes his sin away with the blood of Jesus. William Cowper penned these words to a hymn many of you know: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
2. There is another way this passage describes who will enter heaven. Verse 11 says patterns of behavior, whether guided by unbelief or faith, eventually become “set in stone” or irreversible. In this age before Christ returns, there is a “hardening of positions,” a great polarization between the righteous and unrighteous. Regarding the unrighteous, when the evildoer and filthy hear the message of Revelation and refuse to repent, their hearts are hardened. God gives them over to their sin so they become more firmly fixed on their present course (Rom 1:24-25). Verse 15 describes the unrighteous, noting they are “outside” heaven. But when the righteous and holy hear Revelation, their hearts are shaped by its promises. They become more firmly fixed upon the call to persevere in the fight of faith. They resolve to repent of unbelief, believe God’s promise, strive for holiness, and persevere to the end in doing what is right. Warren Wiersbe said it this way: “Decision determines character; character determines destiny.”
C. To instruct how to enter heaven (vv. 18-21)
The end of the Bible gets right to the bottom of the matter. Sinners are crafty. Everyone (religious and non-religious alike) is skilled at justifying his or her own beliefs and behavior. You and I, we relativize our sin: “Your sin is worse than mine, therefore I’m not so bad.” We search long and hard for that one needle in the haystack that calls our sin good, that promises another interpretation or a way around what the Bible says. Then we lay hold of the false promise because it excuses us. But God won’t let you treat the Bible like it’s yours to change or interpret according to your wishes. It is his Word, not yours and not mine. The Story of Promise instructs us how to enter heaven, how to enter by the city gates and freely access the tree of life and drink the living water. How? First get your doctrine of the Bible right, that it is God’s true, never-changing Word for all people in all times and all places. Do not alter God’s Word in any way, but believe his promises and keep his Word until Jesus comes. Don’t change the message of salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone, to God’s glory alone as it’s found in Scripture alone. Don’t cave in at the point where you are tempted to accommodate, to deny, or to be silent. Don’t apologize to the world for unpopular or offensive Bible passages. Read all of God’s Word, believe all of God’s Word, and devote yourself to keep all of God’s Word. If you don’t see anything wrong with adding or subtracting from the Bible, it won’t be long before you stop believing and trusting its promises. If you add or subtract from the Bible, you won’t be in a position of submission to God. You’ll think the Bible needs to be cleansed rather than you! Only those who believe all of God’s Word are in a position to be washed in Christ’s cleansing blood, and thereby made holy, and therefore to do right. Only those will enter heaven.
Conclusion – Note this last chapter of Revelation (and of the entire Bible) draws together many of the macro themes addressed earlier in Revelation. The Story of Creation finds its completion in the vision of the Garden temple-city (Rev 22:1-5). The Story of the Fall ends with the curse removed from the new heavens and earth, but those who are outside face eternal judgment for their wickedness and unbelief (Rev 22:3, 5, 15). The Story of Love concludes with the Bride of Christ calling everyone to come to Jesus Christ the Bridegroom for salvation (Rev 22:17). The Story of Sacrifice resolves with a blessing for those who wash their robes in the only thing that cleanses: the blood of the Lamb’s sacrifice on the cross (Rev 22:14). All these major themes find their fulfillment in God’s Story of Promise in which he finishes his work of creation, redemption, and consummation. Is it worth all the sacrifice and trouble and energy and scorn and heartache and suffering to believe and trust the Story of Promise? God’s answer in Revelation, where we marvel at the ending of all God’s Stories, is Yes! “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).
*Note: the idea and title for this sermon, and for the sermon series “God’s Stories,” came from Michael Lawrence’s excellent book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.