The book of Revelation ends with an interesting tale of two cities. Augustine didn’t get this stuff out of thin air. Revelation 17:1 begins with one of the angels from the seven plagues giving John a tour of the whore of Babylon. This scene is repeated in 21:9. As I did in my Sunday School class you can walk down the list of comparisons: whore/bride, both adorned in riches, both are women AND cities, one is in the wilderness, the other seen from a mountain. It’s a fascinating study in comparison.
The comparison gets even more interesting when you begin to compare the the parts that the kings and the nations play. In the context of the whore the kings commit adultery with her, they grow rich by their league with her, they make war against the lamb. In their loss of the great battle their flesh is eaten. “The nations” too is a byword for those in rebellion against God.
If you read the book of Revelation as some flat end times future predictive narrative you’re going to get in trouble here and have to start concocting lots of “yeah buts” about which kings where, etc. You might even get loss in some morass about the state of Israel because when you get to chapter 21 John has turned things around a bit.
Revelation 21 clearly follows Isaiah 60 in seeing the kings of the earth bring their treasures to the throne of God in Jerusalem. (In Isaiah 60:16 they nurse Israel with their breasts. Getting all literal with this gets us into ugly man-boob territory, but I digress.) Isaiah 60 as seen through Revelation 21 is one of the most amazing images in the Bible. God calling to himself the glory/the cultural treasures/the riches of the kings and the nations to himself.
Revelation 21:8-22:7 adds to this picture an image of purity that gets repeated again and again, I think echoing also Isaiah 35 and Ezekiel 47:1-12. It is a cacophony of images recalling Eden but now with the purified results of the cultural efforts of the nations having born fruit in the celebration of the creator.
The leaves of the trees along the banks of this river bring healing to the nations. Commentators say things like “well now in a perfect world they don’t need healing” but these kinds of knee jerk literalism forced upon both Revelation and OT prophetic images just keeps missing the point.
This image is so Jesus like. Think of the stories of Luke 7. Jesus heals a centurion’s servant. An officer of Roman occupational forces whose done well by those he’s sent to repress who understands via the culture of the Roman army that the Son of Man need not travel by foot to release his slave from illness so he can continue to manage his Roman household. There are so many levels of dissonance in this story it’s simply got to be real. Jesus moves on to raise the only son of a widow right in his funeral procession before the entire town. Jesus doesn’t halt funerals the way Fred Phelps does. Jesus points to this kind of ministry to the confused John the Baptist. The triumph of the chapter is the story of Jesus’ treatment by the Pharisees and his treatment of the sinful woman of the town. Luke 7 is a grand example of the kind of healing of the nations done by the Son of Man.
I can’t help but imagine that the beauty and depth of the New Jerusalem are accomplished in fact as a result of the overcoming of the rebellion. Last time in my Adult Sunday School class I mentioned the scars of Jesus that remained after the resurrection I got lots of pushback. (I love it when I get push back from my class, it means their listening and taking all of this stuff seriously!) Why would those scars remain? Shouldn’t the resurrection remove the scars? Miroslav Volf spends a lot of time in “Exclusion and Embrace” talking about the issue of memory in the life to come. Can we really be healed if we remember our sin and being sinned against? How many times don’t we hear war vets talk about their desperate desire to forget the horrible images of battle and the sight of their friends being torn apart in war?
I think the leaves there for the healing of the nations are there for the same reasons the scars on Jesus’ resurrected body remains. The glory of the nations, the riches of the culture making, even the culture making done in rebellion and hatred of God, are all brought into the new city and healed, or as is often said “translated” to be employed by the owner of it all.
Chesterton had it right. Everyone longs for security. Everyone longs for nail biting, white knuckle adventure. Only Christianity gives you both of them.
Tolkien has it in his books. We love the stories of desperate, amazing adventure as well as a cozy hobbit holes. Bilbo’s sick love of the ring, Frodo’s wound from the ring wraiths, get translated and somehow the Bilbo and Frodo of the age to come are greater for their adventures, as are we. Yet the adventures won’t just be simply past things, like the sports stories of the “Glory Days”. There will be more glory because of the rebellion, don’t ask me how. There will be a deep resonance in the new Jerusalem that could never have been in Eden. I can taste it in Tolkien’s art. Lewis has his sehnsucht. Sehnsucht points to something else that could not have been had without risk or loss at some point. We don’t have a word for it because we’ve never known it but we can have a sense of it in some good art.
The kings and the nations were once drunk on the wine of the whore, but now they present their treasures to the king and are healed by the leaves of his trees. Don’t ask me to draw you a picture or start naming names. That is always beyond us. Jesus applauds a generous slave holding occupational officer, restores a widow’s only son in broad daylight, recognizes while correcting a baptizing prophet and sees a woman who has been making a living on her back and dares to approach him in love while in the midst of a group of men who thought themselves too good to offer Jesus even common hospitality. In these stories I see the kings, and the hookers bringing their glory to Jesus and Jesus being the water of life that grows leaves that heal the nations.