Are you premillennialist or post-millennialist? (How about amillennialist?) Are you ready for the rapture? Do you put an item back if your total in the checkout line at the store comes up $6.66? These days much of the Christian world seems to be obsessed with theories about the end times or, more precisely, about the interpretation of the book of the Revelation to John. Most center on various theories of a reign of Christ on earth.
Most preachers in the churches of Christ have maintained an amillennialist view; that Jesus will not again reign on earth, but rather the final judgement will coincide with his "second coming." The general view of the book of the Revelation is what scholars call the "preterist" view; that most or all of the book of the Revelation has already been fulfilled, primarily in the first century AD. I don't know whether that is the view of most members, but those who have studied in our colleges or schools of preaching have been taught that view. The common interpretation is that everything before chapter 20 came to pass long ago. Everything in chapters 21 and 22 are a picture of heaven. The problem is to figure out how much of chapter 20 is past and how much is future.
I have read a couple of authors' interpretations that present a variation that avoids some of the pitfalls of this view. I present it here not as the only possible interpretation, but to show what some in the church believe about the Revelation. This view answers one puzzling question and one of the most common objections to our tradition interpretation. The puzzling question is, "If chapters 21 and 22 are a picture of heaven, then how come it says the New Jerusalem came down out of heaven?" The common objection, as mentioned earlier, is, "if most of the book is past, where do you draw the line between what is past and what is future?"
Shortly Come to Pass
For years we have argued from Revelation 1:1 that the events of the book "must shortly come to pass." They were to occur during or shortly after the first century. Most of our interpretations, however, said this was true except for the final two or three chapters of the book. Everything in the book was a symbol, and the symbols clearly related to the church and the Roman Empire. At some point the book becomes less symbolic and deals with the church in some undetermined future (to us) time. This has been the great failing of most church of Christ textbook interpretations of the Revelation.
Perhaps we need to adopt the view of some that the entire book, excluding nothing, falls under the category of "shortly to come to pass." Chapters 20-22 are as symbolic and as eminent to the original readers as chapters 1-19. This presents the prophecy as a whole, and not as two distinct prophecies. If we take the book to be one revelation, as it calls itself (although many people mistakenly name the book "Revelations"), then we must either believe that it all was fulfilled soon after written or that, as many of our neighbors believe, it is all yet to be fulfilled.
In the view here presented the entire book has one meaning: "we have overcome." This is in contrast to our usual statement that the book is telling the Christians during Roman persecution, "we will overcome." The message that we have overcome would simply be an extension of what John had already written.
I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the evil one. … Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them; because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. … For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world; and this is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith. (1 John 1:13-14; 4:4; 5:4)
A Book of Symbols
The book of the Revelation is symbolic. Because of this it is hard to understand exactly what is meant in every case. We of the twenty-first century may not always know exactly what was meant by symbols that were easily interpreted in the first century. We may know what was not meant. For instance, a lion in the Revelation does not represent England; a bear does not represent Russia; and eagle does not represent the United States; and a leopard does not represent the third world countries of Africa as we know them today. To apply modern symbols to the first century is clearly ridiculous, although some try to do so. There is a danger in overinterpreting any symbol, as well as misinterpreting it after twenty centuries. On the other hand, some are obvious. A beast with seven heads fits nicely with Rome, the city of seven hills. This fits even more closely when the book says, "the seven heads are seven mountains." (Rev 17:9) History alone, then, makes some symbols easy to understand. Whether the symbols that Brother Lonnie Woodruff equates with aspects of the church truly apply or not, he makes a compelling case for his interpretation. Particularly, he interprets symbols in the Revelation by comparing them to symbols throughout the Bible, particularly in the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah.
The interpretation presented by Brother Woodruff is that the New Jerusalem of chapters 21 and 22 is a symbolic picture of the church, which has existed since the first century. It is not a picture of heaven, as is commonly believed, because it came down from heaven. As Jim Blevins put it in another study, "One thing that we must recognize is that these two chapters do not deal with the saints in heaven, but heaven in the saints. It is a description not of what the church will one day be, but what she is already."
Symbols of the Church
Brother Woodruff shows how most of the symbols of Revelation 21 and 22 relate to the church on earth. I won't repeat all of his material here; I will summarize some of the more significant comparisons he makes.
One of the first things he points out is that the New Jerusalem is described as being "the bride, the lamb's wife" (Rev 21:9). I have heard preachers who insist that this is a picture of heaven call the church the bride of Christ without realizing that it is the holy city to which the term refers. In Romans 7:4 Paul says that we are dead to the law that we might be married to Christ. We are truly the bride of Christ, but that would mean that the New Jerusalem is us, the church.
The water of life flows in the city (Rev 22:1-2). Jesus told the woman at the well, "The water I give shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." (Jn 4:14) In Revelation 1:15, the voice of Jesus is "as the sound of many waters." Jesus said, "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." The water of life is the words of Jesus. We have those words now. They flow through the church, as they flow through the midst of the holy city.
"The street of the city was pure gold." (Rev 21:21) This is a special street. Only the pure can walk there, as indicated by the reference to pure gold. Isaiah spoke of such a highway. "And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein." (Isa 35:8) He goes on in the next verse to say, "The redeemed shall walk there." It could be argued that the street of gold could only be in heaven. On the other hand, the church is the redeemed, made clean by the blood of Christ. We walk in a path of purity, called "the way of righteousness" by Peter (2 Pet 2:21). Only those who are in the church can be walking on the street of gold.
And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. (Rev 21:23-25)
"And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever." (Rev 22:5) These verses show another aspect of the New Jerusalem, which may be the church. It is full of the light of God. "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Cor 4:6) "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." (1 Peter 2:9) While we will certainly be in the light of God in heaven, these and other scriptures show that we don't need to wait, in fact must not wait, until we are in heaven to be in the light.
There are many who, because of tradition or for other reasons, will not accept what Brothers Woodruff and Blevins and others teach about the New Jerusalem. Many, particularly those who hold one of the millennialist views, will not agree with the views that the entire book of the Revelation took place two thousand years ago. Whether you agree with these views or not, they are presented here as a possible interpretation, not necessarily the acceptable view. It can never hurt to see what others are saying, whether you accept it or not.