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Walking on the beach one beautiful summer night years ago, I breathed in the scene of the crashing waves and circling stars and, with some disappointment, thought about the passage from Revelation 21:1, “And there was no more sea. ” Similarly, verse 25 reads, “there will be no night there.” Really, God? But I love the ocean, and the night sky is beautiful. If heaven doesn’t have these, then I can’t help but feel a little bit  of disappointment. And while we’re on the subject, what about the new Jerusalem? Living in a huge city always seemed a lot less attractive than relaxing in a garden. I don’t really care that much about streets made of gold either.

A lot of you will be smiling at how naively literal my reading of Revelation was, but I don’t think I was alone. In college, I was crazy enough to agree to teach Revelation to a group of teenagers, and whether they got anything out of it or not, I was exposed to a very valuable resource in Paul Spilsbury’s book, The Throne, the Lamb and the Dragon:  A Reader’s Guide To the Book of Revelation. Spilsbury thankfully draws his readers away from the contemporary obsession with just how the end times will unfold, pointing out that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, almost similar to a fantasy. The strange images of the book come from a long tradition of similar figures, symbols, and numbers running through the Old Testament.

The sea, for instance, is consistently a place of fear for the Israelites, who were not much of a seafaring people. It is constantly pictured as chaotic, and out of it come all sorts of evil creatures (often sybolizing various kingdoms) who are a threat to God’s people. When John describes heaven as being without the sea, he isn’t giving his readers a physical description of its geography, but is making a statement about the existence of evil there. There will be no more evil monsters from the sea; all of Israel’s/the church’s enemies will be gone. In fact, the place where they originated will be gone.

The same principle applies to the banishment of night, the creation of a city, and the composition of the streets. These are not intended to be literal details about heaven. Instead, the Lord is telling us that the dangers of night will be gone;  that God’s people will be together in perfect community; and that the perfection of heaven will so outshine this world that the most valuable material we have here, gold, will be used for the basest of functions there.

Reading Revelation in this way truly unlocks its secrets. It is not a clue book to the future. Instead, it is a fantastic story to encourage us in our present state of troubles. Happy reading to you all as you jump back in the book.

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