Image credit: Daniel Bonnell
This post is a revised and greatly expanded (from 300 words to 1400) version of a previous piece on my blog, which appeared in my church's 2019 Advent devotional. I have expanded it at the request of Red Letter Christians, where it will appear as an article in April.
"Behold, I am making all things new." Revelation 21:5
"In the original Greek" is a sad church cliche, and too many times it comes before a lot of really bad second-hand misinformation. Fortunately, even though I’m using it today, I’m not offering anything except a couple dictionary definitions.
In Biblical Greek, there are two distinct words, both translated as "new," but with radically different connotations. Neos means "new" as we normally think of it: a new car, a new book, a new day. In other words, neos means something that was recently created.
But neos is not the word the author of Revelation uses here. What we have here is kainos, which also translates as new but in a very different way. Something that is kainos is “new as to form or substance.” Unlike neos, which just means something recently made, kainos indicates something unlike anything before, of a “form or substance” previously unknown, or something that is better than the one that came before it so much that it fulfills and even surpasses the original model.
In the context of this verse from Revelation, we might better think of it as "renewed," which is another way of reading the word. We occasionally do the same thing in English. For example, I’m going to fix up this old house so it’s “good as new” - or to make it kainos. The house isn't a "new" house, but it has been restored and re-newed. It is "new in substance" and quality, consistent with the model of the last one but radically transformed into something even more fresh and beautiful by contrast.
It's like this whole world is the crumbling, dilapidated ruins of God's beautiful "house" for us, and Revelation 22 is God's version of Extreme Makeover: Eden Edition. (Click to share on Twitter)
There’s good precedent for Jesus doing this long before Revelation was written. The “new” covenant in Christ’s blood was both intricately interwoven with the story of Israel, and yet it was totally unprecedented and unexpected, like a “new” chapter in the book or (more accurately) a whole new book in the series. Jesus’ “new” commandment to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34) wasn’t really new - the commandment had existed before; but he says it is kainos because the introduction and model of his own love for humanity totally shifts our perspective on this ancient commandment. Our love for one another has a totally new meaning, foundation, motivation, and context, because it is rooted in the one who loved us so much he was embodied in human flesh, jumping into the muck and mire of this broken world, filled with a love so deep that it overcame sin and death forever.
Here, at the very end of our Bibles, John tells us about seeing a “new heaven and a new earth.” I was always taught that meant one thing: God was going to wipe all of this out and go back to the drawing board, starting it all over again at ground zero, like a cosmic version of Noah’s flood. And I always wondered, “So what exactly was the point of all of this, then?” Then I learned some Greek and realized that here, among the very last words that Jesus speaks in the whole canon, he says, “I am making all things kainos.”
The Jesus of Revelation 21 is not a Jesus coming to blow this universe to smithereens and start over with a "new" one - although we often get that sense from certain Christian books and teachings. No. The Jesus of Revelation 21 is "making all things new," that is, re-newing all things to their original intent in a way which far surpasses what has come before. He is making all things kainos. In the same way that Christ brings Israel's storyline to fulfillment, he is bringing the story of the universe to its ultimate goal and purpose: union with God.
It is no coincidence, then, that Revelation 22 echoes back to the garden of Eden, where the tree of life is present in the "new" city. Eden has been restored (which is the heading for the section in the NIV edition), but it has also been surpassed and exceeded. To continue the metaphor, it's like this whole world is the crumbling, dilapidated ruins of God's beautiful "house" for us, and Revelation 22 is God's version of Extreme Makeover: Eden Edition.
In the same way the house both is and isn't a "new" house (depending on which definition you use) and the resurrected Jesus both was and wasn't a "new" man, the universe of Revelation 21-22 both will and won't be a "new" universe. This Jesus, the real Jesus, isn't offering a divine reset button. He's promising that all the brokenness of this Creation will be reconnected with God's original vision for it, and that we will once again be "good as new."
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning* or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
But what about judgment?
With such an optimistic outlook for the next chapter in the story of the universe (notice that I did not say “end” of the universe), it’s easy to leave judgment out of the picture, particularly because it’s not a very optimistic topic. But I know that if this were a lecture, there would be plenty of hands raised with this exact question, so I’ll try to address it briefly here.
The good news is not an invitation to escape punishment, but an invitation to break the cosmic alliance with evil and restore God’s purpose for humanity. (Click to share on Twitter)
I think it is essential to acknowledge two points (which often get overlooked) when discussing judgment. First, God’s primary goal in judgment is renewal. Renewal requires some level of judgment, just like renovating the old house requires some level of demolition.
Second, people are not called evil (my Calvinist friends might freak out at that one). Instead, evil is an external force that people choose to cooperate with or are caught up into. This is why rebellion and sin is first described as the “knowledge of evil.” Evil is nothing more or less than a direct attack on God’s good and beautiful intentions for the universe; it’s like asbestos or black mold or dry rot inside the house, and it needs to be dealt with as part of the renewal process.
This is a lynchpin, because it teaches us one thing clearly: judgment is first and foremost about restoration, not punishment. However we define it, we must keep this in mind. Although punishment may indeed be part of the picture, it is not the goal of judgment, and it is not what makes God’s heart happy. This is one of many reasons why I wrote the article I don’t believe in hell, which got so much attention.
There’s a lot of talk about judgment and punishment in the Bible, but it is always a result of a free choice to cooperate with evil. The good news is not an invitation to escape punishment, but an invitation to break the cosmic alliance with evil and restore God’s purpose for humanity.
If you’re troubled and disturbed by talk of judgment and punishment, that's okay. The hoarder is disturbed when the crew comes in to clear out all the garbage and destroy the mold and rot. The old lady is disturbed when they smash down and remove the rotting porch on which she had so many barbecues and family reunions. Neither of them can see the new and improved version yet, and it takes a lot longer for them to see the results than it takes for us to watch the hour-long episode. In the end, we just have to trust that the Designer knows what he is doing, and his intentions are only for the best; and based on what we have seen so far, his best is always for the best of the whole world.
*Incidentally, these words are a quote from Isaiah 25, in which the context is the restoration of a new city to which all peoples are invited to the grand banquet.