By Alexander Maclaren
Is the vision of the New Jerusalem to be realized in the present or in the future? Such features as the existence of ‘nations’ and ‘kings of the earth’ outside of it (vs. 21, 24), and leaves of the tree of life being ‘for the healing of the nations,’ favour the former reference, while its place in the book, after the first and second resurrections and the judgment and at the very end of the whole, seems to oblige us to hold by the latter. But the question must be answered in the light of the fact that the Christian life is one in essence in both worlds, and that the difference between the conditions of the society of the redeemed here and there is only one of degree. The city ‘has already come down from heaven; its perfect form waits to be manifested.
The passage is partly the close of that vision (vs. 1-5), and partly the beginning of the epilogue of the whole book (vs. 6-11). The closing description of the city is saturated with allusions to Old Testament prophecy.
It is like the finale of some great concerto, in which the themes that have sounded throughout it are all gathered up in the last majestic, melodious crash. Here at the farthest point to which mortal eyes are allowed to pierce, the ‘tree of life’ that the first of mortal eyes had looked on waves its branches again. The end has circled round to the beginning. But now there is no more prohibition to pluck and eat, and now it grows, not in a garden, but in a city where the perfection of human society is entered into.
Here, on the last page of Scripture, the river, the music of whose ripple had been heard by Ezekiel and Zechariah bringing life to everything that it laved, and by the Psalmist making glad the city of God,’ flows with a broader, fuller stream, and is fouled by no stains, but is ‘clear as crystal.’ River and tree have the same epithet, and bring the same gift to the citizens. All the blessings which Jesus gives are summed up, both in John’s Gospel and in the Apocalypse, as life.’ The only true life is to live as God’s redeemed servants, and that life is ours here and now if we are His. It is but a ‘stream’ of the river that gladdens us here, the fruit has not yet its full flavor nor abundance.’ It is life, more life, for which we pant,’ and the desire will be satisfied there when the river runs always full, and every month the fruit hangs ripe and ready to be dropped into happy hands from among the healing leaves.
In verses 3 and 4 we pass from the city to the citizens. Perfect purity clothes them all. There shall be no more anything accursed’; that is, any unclean thing drawing down necessarily the divine ‘curse,’ and therefore there shall be no separation, no film of distance between the King and the people, but ‘the throne of God and the Lamb shall be therein.’ The seer has already beheld the Lamb close by the throne of God, but now he sees Him sharing it in indissoluble union. Perfect purity leads to perfect union with God and (or rather in) Christ, and unbroken, glad submission to His regal rule. And that perfect submission is the occupation and delight of all the citizens. They are His bond-servants,’ and their fetters are golden chains of honour and ornament. They ‘do Him service,’ ministering as priests, and all their acts are ‘begun, continued, and ended in Him.’ Having been faithful over a few things, they are made rulers over many things, and are yet bond-servants, though rulers.
In that higher service the weary schism between the active and the contemplative life is closed up. Mary and Martha end their long variance, and gazing on His face does not hinder active obedience, nor does doing Him service distract from beholding His beauty. His name shall be in their foreheads,’ conspicuous and unmistakable, no longer faintly traced or often concealed, but flaming on their brows. They are known to be His, because their characters are conformed to His. They bear ‘the marks of Jesus’ in complete and visible assimilation to Him.
The vision closes with an echo of Old Testament prophecy (Isa_60:19). ‘No night’ - perhaps the most blessed of all John’s negative descriptions of the future state, indicating the removal for ever of all the evil and woe symbolized by darkness, and pointing to a state in which no artifices of ours are needed to brighten our gloom with poor, man-made candles, nor any created light, though mighty and resplendent as the sun, whose beams fade into invisibility before the immortal radiance that pours out for ever from the throne, brightening every glorified face that is turned to its lustre. Thus seeing, serving, and being like ‘God and the Lamb,’ they, as a consequence, shall reign for ever and ever,’ for they are as He is, and while He lives and reigns they also live and reign.
With verse 6 begins the epilogue. An angel speaks, the same as in chapter 1:1 - is represented as ‘signifying’ the ‘revelation’ to John. He now, as it were, sets his seal on his completed roll of prophecy. To discriminate between the words of the angel and of Jesus is impossible. Jesus speaks through him. ‘Behold, I come quickly’ cannot be merely the angel’s voice. As in verse 12, a deeper voice speaks through his lips. The purpose of that solemn announcement is to impress on the Asiatic churches and through them on the whole Church through all time, the importance of keeping ‘the words of the prophecy of this book.’ ‘Quickly’ - and yet nineteen hundred years have gone since then? Yes; and during them all Jesus has been coming, and the words of this book have progressively been in process of fulfilment.
Again, the speedy coming is enforced as a reason for not sealing up the prophecy, as had been commanded in chapter x. 4, and elsewhere in the Old Testament. And a very solemn thought closes our lesson - that there is a moment, the eve of any great day of the Lord,’ when there is no more time or opportunity for change of moral or spiritual disposition. ‘Too late, too late, ye cannot enter now.’ Let us ‘redeem the time,’ buy back the opportunity while yet it is within our grasp.