(1) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
The general idea of this language is well established in the biblical record to refer to newness after the fall of a country, an enemy, or a covenant. In the song of Moses, it is said,
“Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. (16) Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.” (Exodus 15:15-16).
Moses uses language of the Canaanite world melting away and given to Israel, a new creation; for the word “purchased” used in the song is also the world for “created” in Hebrew. In the book of Isaiah, God speaks of the return of Israel to the land, saying,
“And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.'” (Isaiah 51:16).
The return to a new life in the land is described by God as an establishment of a new heavens and a new earth. Notice again, how God spoke of “establishing the heavens” as he brought the people back to Zion, and “laying the foundations of the earth” as he gave them a new birth. We are seeing something very similar in Revelation 21:1, where the creation of the new covenant people, and a new life as the bride of the Lamb, is related to the picture of new heavens and a new earth.
At the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, Jeremiah pictured it as if the world was back to a complete void as in the days that God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1-2).
“I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” (Jeremiah 4:23).
Jeremiah’s words are a tremendous testimony as to how God communicates to man about the fall of a people, especially the old covenant people. The fall of Jerusalem, although strictly a regional destruction, is communicated as a complete annihilation of the planet. Likewise, seeing a new creation in Revelation 21:1 should not lead us to suspect that the whole world had been literally destroyed.
God spoke a wonderful thing through the prophet Haggai that is in connection to these final chapters of the book,
“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. (7) And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2:6-7).
Haggai’s prophecy of the coming new covenant, and therefore, a new creation in Christ, demanded a shaking of “the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.” He was speaking of a change from the world that was to the world under Christ’s reign, where people of all nations would fill God’s house (church) with glory. The writer of Hebrews provides a good commentary on Haggai’s prophecy, and identifies the timing of fulfillment to be in the first century.
“At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” (27) This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. (28) Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:26-28).
Hebrews addresses the point that the one last shaking of heaven and earth indicates the removal of things that are shaken. Therefore the shaking referred to a passing away of the physical house, so that the things which cannot be shaken (the spiritual house) may be the only thing that remains. This, the writer says, is what was happening in his days, as they were “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” It was in the first century times that heaven and earth was shaken “yet once more,” causing the “removal” of the physical temple in Jerusalem; and leaving an unshakable – because it’s unearthly and spiritual – temple that people of all nations will flow into (Haggai 2:7; Isaiah 2:2). The prophet Daniel also foretold the situation of those days when he spoke of a stone that “was cut out by no human hand,” i.e. it was unearthly and therefore unshakeable, and it “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:34-35). Now that’s a new earth! So then, the prophets don’t always have to use the same wording, like “new heavens and a new earth”, to talk about the same thing. Isaiah does the same thing when he spoke concerning the “latter days” of Jerusalem, which closed the chapter on the old covenant house, saying “the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isaiah 2:2). Again, that is a picture of the new heavens and a new earth!
Specifically, the words of the prophecy made here in Revelation 21:1, is repeated from Isaiah 65:17.
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”
Isaiah is not talking about a future heaven but a change that would take place in the heavens and the earth. He had spoken in the context of the book of the suffering Savior (Isaiah 53), who would be raise up (53:10-12), be glorified (Isaiah 54, 60), and flourish with his people (Isaiah 55-56, 62-63). It is a new heaven because of the glorified Lamb anointed to reign over all in the heavens and on earth (Matthew 28:18); it is a new earth because the Lamb rules all nations with a rod of iron (Psalm 2) and God’s glorious house, the church, grew into a great mountain that covers the whole earth. Isaiah’s context is also the context of Revelation; but one spoke long before these things would occur while the other spoke of these things that “must soon take place.” Isaiah’s prophecy is not awaiting fulfillment in our future, as some assert, for if our faith is in Jesus, then we believe that these things happened in the generation of the first century, for Jesus said they would: “for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.” (Luke 21:22).
Peter also spoke of the coming of the “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13) which would be in that generation. Many have also misrepresented Peter to be talking about heaven, but he makes it clear that heaven was not under discussion. For first of all, Peter was writing in context about “the last days” (2 Peter 3:3); such wording is only used in scripture to indicate the last days of the old covenant system (see a full discussion on this in the introductory chapter of this book). Peter admonishes the brethren in those days to “remember the predictions of the holy prophets” (2 Peter 3:2); so Peter’s reference to the new heavens and earth is in keeping with “the predictions of the holy prophets,” i.e. Peter is using this language in harmony with what Isaiah had predicted; he is not, therefore, using similar language to talk about a future heaven when Isaiah used it to speak of the coming of the new covenant church. Peter even reminds us that he is not using similar language to speak of a different subject, saying, “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13). They were in “the last days” of the old covenant system and were “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,” (2 Peter 3:12) which would destroy the old system along with most of the old covenant bride (harlot). The ESV’s use of “heavenly bodies” which were being dissolved (2 Peter 3:10, 12) corresponds to the KJV’s use of the word “elements,” but the original Greek word is only used in scripture of the rudiments of God’s covenants (Galatians 4:3, 4:9; Colossians 2:8, 2:20; Hebrews 5:12); so, Peter’s point was that the old covenant system was being dissolved, not the physical world. And a critical error has been made in nearly every English translation of 2 Peter 3:11, where the English translators attempt to make the dissolving of the old world into a future event, while Peter specifies in the original Greek that it was a current event. Peter’s use of luomenon (being dissolved) is in the present tense, and therefore, conveys the thought that the old covenant system was presently being dissolved, and not that it will be dissolved in the future – as the English translations say. But Peter’s original words are in accordance with Revelation’s discussion of the dissolving of the old world system and ushering in the new covenant world, and it is in harmony with Hebrew’s references to the old covenant being “ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13, 7:18-19, 9:9-10). Therefore, Peter’s uses of “the new heavens and a new earth” is consistent with the rest of the biblical record which uses this phrase to predict the consummation of the new covenant world following the last days of the old covenant structure.
“For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” The old covenant world was shaken to the point of collapse by the voice of Christ and the words of his covenant (Hebrews 12:26-28). This statement also follows the prophecy of Isaiah’s new heaven and earth, when he said, “the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). The first heaven and the first earth are called “the former things” by Isaiah. These former things will not be remembered or come to mind; now, in the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, this does not mean that we would have no recognition of the former things of the old covenant world, but that the people of God should have no desire for the old world now that they have experienced the new covenant in Christ.
“And the sea was no more.” Haggai also pointed out the passing away of the sea (Haggai 2:6). A mountain that has filled the whole earth (Daniel 2:35) would certainly remove the presence of the sea. Nations will no longer flow into the sea but into the great mountain (Isaiah 2:2). To speak literally, the waters separate the dry land (Genesis 1:9-10), so spiritually, there is no sea separating anyone or anything from the new covenant and the reign of Christ, “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14), and that “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6).