Hundreds of thousands of words have been written debating various interpretations of the White Whale or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magical realism in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Perhaps no other book, though, has prompted more (often contradictory) interpretations than the biblical book of the Revelation. Interpretations range from the fantastic (John predicts the development of the atom bomb) to the mundane (it is a history of the church in the First Century). Somewhere in between you can find an interpretation of your choice. Is it symbolic realism, or realistic symbolism? How much is literal and how much is symbolic? How much is predictive and how much is reflective? What is the nature of time; four times it says its events are soon to come to pass, and is soon fifty years or two thousand years?
Among the debates, even among those who believe that the majority of the events of the book took place in the First Century, is the nature of the final two chapters. If the New Jerusalem is heaven, then how can it come down out of heaven? If it is merely a picture of the church, how is it that people still die and there are hypocrites and murderers in the church?
The interpretation that fits best with the text of the book, as well as the historical context, is that all of the events described in the Revelation came to pass within the first two centuries surrounding the life of Jesus. Some of it may go back before his birth, but most is a picture of the church and the persecutions under the Roman government. If chapters 21 and 22 are symbolic descriptions of the church beginning at the Pentecost after Jesus was crucified, how does one deal with such descriptive passages as “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes”? (Rev 21:4)
As with much in the Revelation, this phrase is lifted from the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah was writing about the restoration of a remnant of the Jews when he said, “He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces.” (Isa 25:8)
John used the phrase earlier (Rev 7:17) in connection with those who were at that time loyally serving God. It is a beautiful picture, and does not in any way imply that God will permanently remove all things that cause tears. Even in the church there will be sadness, but God will wipe away our tears.
The picture is that of a mother and a child. The child is feeling hurt, physically or emotionally. The mother takes the child in her arms and wipes away the tears. The child is comforted in its mother’s arms. The child may then go and play, and maybe even injure itself again. But the mother is still there to wipe away the tears and kiss the “boo-boo.” God is likewise pictured comforting us. It may be once a day or once an hour, but He is always there for us.
Jesus described the same phenomenon, but comparing it to animals. Animals or people, mothers are mothers. They are there to wipe away our tears.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings. (Lk 13:34)