The Revelation: Chapter 21:1 (the sea was no more, Part 1)

lion-dove-lamb-yeshuaThe last part of Rev 1:1 declares that in John’s vision of the end of time, “the sea was no more.” And I have to say that, while I’m looking forward to a new body, I would hate for there to be no beaches in heaven. I love the beach. And seafood.

So how this is supposed to be a blessing? The commentators struggle with this one. Leon Morris’s explanation is becoming a standard response —

The sea is never still, a symbol of changefulness. And it is the source of evil, for the beast comes up from it (13:1). ‘The wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud’ (Isa. 57:20).

We must moreover bear in mind that in antiquity people did not have the means of coping successfully with the sea’s dangers and they regarded it as an unnatural element, a place of storms and danger. ‘For this element of unrest, this fruitful cause of destruction and death, this divider of nations and Churches, there could be no place in a world of social intercourse, deathless life, and unbroken peace’ (Swete). In the end this seething cauldron, fraught with unlimited possibilities of evil, will disappear.

No-one lives on the sea. It is something to be crossed to arrive at one’s destination, but there is nothing permanent about it. The sea is one of seven evils John speaks of as being no more, the others being death, mourning, weeping, pain (v. 4), curse (22:3) and night (22:5).

Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 232.

Maybe that’s right. It is true that the Jews were not a seafaring people, despite having a long coastline on the Mediterranean, as well as being close to the Red Sea. Their neighbors in Phoenicia were masters of the sea, and the Jews were plenty smart and resourceful enough to have duplicated their skills. But the Jews were, at heart, a desert people. They were theologically tied to the land God gave them. And so, when they traveled the sea, they sailed on a pagan’s ship.

And there’s a subtle point from Gen 1, quite unprovable, that might make sense. Recall, that John will soon tell us that “there is no night there” (Rev 21:5) because “God will be their light” (Rev 22:5). And yet many of readers are night people who love the night.

But to a First Century Jew, the night was fearsome. There were no street lights and no flash lights. On an overcast night, if you were lost, you had a serious problem because, in the desert, you wouldn’t be able to see anything. Torches and lanterns had been invented, of course, but those require another fire to light them — and most people did not carry fire, and matches wouldn’t be invented for centuries.

Therefore, to the ancients, night was a time of dangers, of predatory animals, and of thieves.

Hence, in the Bible, “dark” and “night” are metaphors for separation from God. And much is the same for the sea. To a Jew, the sea was a place to drown, to suffer horrible storms, to die in a shipwreck, or the source of Roman armies and other enemies.

Both of these attitudes are reflected in Gen 1. Let’s start with “dark” and “night.”

(Gen. 1:1-5 ESV) In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 

The Creation, while “void and without form” was covered with darkness (v. 1). During the seven days of creation, God’s first words were “Let there be light.” The light is good, but the text doesn’t declare the darkness good. And Jesus, the apostles, and the rabbis noticed this and so routinely used “light” to speak of God, his realm, and his word. Those separated from God as “cast into outer darkness” (Matt 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). The point is that, since God is light, to be utterly separated from him is to be thrown into darkness. So it’s hardly a surprise that John pictures the new heavens and new earth as always being in the light, because God is our light.

The NET Bible translator notes comment,

The Hebrew word simply means “darkness,” but in the Bible it has come to symbolize what opposes God, such as judgment (Exo 10:21), death (Psa 88:13), oppression (Isa 9:1), the wicked (1Sa 2:9) and in general, sin. In Isa 45:7 it parallels “evil.” It is a fitting cover for the primeval waste, but it prepares the reader for the fact that God is about to reveal himself through his works.

And the Greek cities that John was writing to would have had many sun worshipers. Hence, God is better and more potent than the sun itself — so that, unlike the sun, with God there is no darkness at all. God is so omnipresent and glorious that there aren’t even shadows.

Given the way John combines metaphor upon metaphor, it only makes sense that he’d contrast the new heavens and new earth with the utter darkness that existed before God began his Creation by speaking light into existence.

So what else existed before light? Well —

(Gen. 1:1-10 ESV)  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  … 

6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so.  8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.  9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

V. 6 assumes that water already existed. God makes land but isn’t said to make the waters on the second day. What was needed on the second day was the creation of land in the midst of the existing water.

This is a reference back to v. 2 “the deep” and “the face of the waters.” There was water before there was light.

If Genesis pictures the world as a sea covered in darkness before the word of God entered to transform emptiness and voidness into a Temple for the Almighty, then it makes sense to see the sea as a God-less remnant left over from God’s Creation.

As John Walton explains,

If the text were going to talk about the manufacture of matter, it would begin when no matter existed. But since, as we have seen, it intends to talk about bringing the cosmos into existence by organizing and assigning roles and functions—that is, by bringing order to chaos—it will start with the cosmos in a chaotic state. That is just what it does. James Barr puts it this way: “Genesis is interested in an organized world, as against a chaotic world, and not in the metaphysical question of something against nothing.”

In the ancient Near East the existence of chaos was a central concern. Within the cosmos, the raging sea and darkness are the forces of chaos.

Walton, John H. (2011-01-04). Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 1409-1414). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

The three “chaotic” elements of verse 2 (formless earth, darkness, and watery deep) are not negative realities, but ambiguous ones. They should not be seen as sinister, nihilating, demonic powers and therefore, in Gerhard von Rad’s phrase, as “simply the threat to everything he created.” Nor should they be seen, in Brevard Childs’ words, as “a chaotic condition existing independently of God’s creative activity,” an activity “over against the chaos.” There is certainly no exegetical justification for Karl Barth’s proposal that this should be understood as das Nichtige, a nothingness which “has as such its own being, albeit malignant and perverse … which God does not will … [but which] lives only by the fact that it is that which God does not will…. It is a mere travesty of the universe … which opposes God and tempts and threatens His creature.” The sheer tranquillity of the account belies this approach.

There is nothing sinister or menacing about this chaos in Genesis; it is simply the indication that God has not yet done his work.

Walton, John H. (2011-01-04). Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 1437-1445). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Thus, by declaring that there will be no sea and no darkness, John is saying that the new creation will be purged not only of evil but chaos. Everything that remains will serve God’s purposes and shine with his glory. All will be designed and re-created to bring about worship to God.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to The Revelation: Chapter 21:1 (the sea was no more, Part 1)

  1. Tom says:

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” speaks of God’s work beginning before the chaos that ensued when “the earth was (or became) waste and void.” These first two verses may very well be the story of the first or a previous heaven and earth restoration project.

  2. I try not to get too picky with song lyrics, but I get frustrated when people sing about the streets of gold beside the crystal sea. The disappearance of the sea is a major symbol in Revelation.

  3. John F says:

    And speaking of song lyrics, how can there be “No Tears in Heaven” if God is to wipe away every tear?

  4. Alabama John says:

    John, if God wipes away all tears, there won’t be any in heaven. Sing away!!!

    In most cases, we sing of a far more beautiful heaven reward than we preach. We pick out scriptures, many out of context, to damn others and for us to argue and disagree on.

    The words of some songs “might not” be too accurate but they are ALL positive about the place God has prepared for us.

    How Beautiful Heaven must be, sweet home of the happy and free. Fair haven of rest for the weary, How Beautiful heaven must be!

    Maybe we should sing more and preach less.

  5. Ray Downen says:

    It seems clear that the cubic NEW JERUSALEM would have no room in it for an ocean or a lake even if there is a brook where water is flowing. Nothing is said about swimming or fishing or sailing in Heaven. Nothing is said about rain or storms in heaven, or snow, or hail or even a sky such as in this universe. The SON will replace the sun and will shine with no interruptions.

  6. John F says:

    AJ — Are the tears “wiped away” at “Peter’s gate” (bad theology, but many good jokes)? Even I will sing on key in heaven (at least I hope so, as do many of my friends) 🙂

    I have yet to “sea” clearly Jay’s theory thus far, perhaps when the tide comes in with “Part 2”.

    Does “no more sea” mean no more shrimp, lobster, halibut, salmon? Will the stream have mountain brown trout, and will I be allowed to fly fish for them? So many “trivial” questions….

    Whatever heaven is, it will be perfectly suited (for each of us)

  7. Alabama John says:

    John, since God is the gatekeeper he will be standing just outside wiping, then we go in!!!
    Most, if not all tears will be for joy though.

    I feel sure there will be fly fishing of some kind in heaven. Sure hope so. I have never fly fished in the sea anyways, always a lake, pond, or stream.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tom,

    There are plenty of advocates for a creation/re-creation point of view. You’ll find a couple of similar theories in Batsell Barrett Baxter’s I Believe Because … from the 1960s. Quite interesting to see how open the head of the Bible dept of Lipscomb was to various old-earth creation theories in about 1968.

  9. Alabama John says:

    Ray, I enjoy your thoughts and thought provoking posts..

    I try to keep in mind that if all was written about God and our experiences in this world and the next, it is written that the world could not hold all the books.

    There is a lot we don’t know, far more than we do know, and to assume we know it all from picking through the few chapters of our bible to get it all just right is wrong in my opinion.

    A lot of folks have had enough of that.

    It used to be a sin for my bride to attend church without her covering on. Lords Supper once allowed on Sunday “when we all came together”, and so many other hell damning sins, requirements, all with scriptures to back them up that have changed over the years. If so many of the old COC preachers could return from the grave they would be appalled by many things we are doing that they preached, quoted traditional proof scriptures from the bible were wrong.

  10. laymond says:

    I personally prefer Tom’s version of Genesis 1, why because it would explain where the dinosaur bones came from. a previous experiments that didn’t turn out the way God had planned, we do remember the means by which God destroyed all of mankind, but eight, don’t we.
    As for why the sea will no longer be needed, the people who are left will all be the same, no division by waters needed. no animals needed for survival of God’s final creation. after the destruction by fire there will be no material to reconstruct all things, so if God desires to create anything else he will start at scratch . As for New Jerusalem I believe it will be built from material not now in use. as for the size, it seems to me it will be a 300 mile cube which will suffice nicely for the amount that finds the straight and narrow way. Well I could go on with my story, just as others do, but I must admit I know about the same thing as others (Jew or Gentile) about the ways of God, very little.

  11. Symbolic language used in Revelation. The original readers knew and understood. We speculate. Revelation talks of a spiritual realm where things are diametrically different from the things of the physical realm. — Submitted from my paltry knowledge and understanding of the spiritual realm.

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