Every movement has a map imprinted on the heart, and a destination, however glorious, or dark.
A Wall Street Journal article dated 2017 commemorated the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The title read, “100 Years of Communism and 100 Million Dead.” It recounted the human cost of implementing communist ideology. I was stunned by the enormity of a hundred million deaths as a result of any humanly designed “improvement.” Just for scale think of it this way: one million deaths every year for a hundred years, all in the same country, and all done in the name of that country simply trying to fix itself.
Even more interesting to me was how some of the early architects of communist philosophy—Marx, Engels, Lenin—had a casual brush with the New Testament. No doubt they cherry-picked passages, changed them, and glossed them, like Acts chapter 2, where the believers had all things in common.
They believed they could create a similar Utopia without Christ, and without any real spiritual change within the individual. A passionate young man in Lenin’s inner circle—Josef Jugashvili—ascended to the post of the very first General Secretary of the Communist party. He changed his name to Joseph Stalin, and with brutal determination sought to implement all the transitions needed to force an ideal, godless system into existence. It became a nightmarish dystopian state. If there had ever been any inspiration for it drawn from the New Testament, it disappeared quickly. The beautiful reality of one man dying for millions was replaced with millions dying for one man.
Systems are made of individuals, and individuals always operate based on an interior life. Take these early creators of communism. Had you, metaphorically speaking, sliced them open like a melon to look into their souls, you would have found indications of their future ideological trajectory, where their system would end up, even before the first killing ever took place.
Jesus said in Matthew 15:18-19, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart in this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, false witness, slander,” These things are already bundled inside the human heart. The more we develop, the more they develop. The more we grow, the more they grow. No marriage can survive a life like that one. Neither can a community long endure it. In fact we’ve seen great upheavals, where societies rose and then collapsed in a heap of violence and blood. Utopia? History tells us we have never succeeded, and the Bible tells us we never will.
Jesus Christ offers a completely different life than what resides in the darkened human heart. This completely different life in Him has a totally different trajectory, and lands in an absolutely different destination—the New Jerusalem.
This city is a composite of all who have lived with him and in him and under him. In fact, the detailed features of the city describe the experiences we have of Christ, both now, and to a far greater extent, in the future.
Revelation 22:1 says, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal.” This is an angelic tour of the New Jerusalem. In earlier verses, John had been shown the precious materials of the city, the light of the city. Now in grand conclusion, comes a tour of the life of the city.
The river of life is a theme emerging throughout the Bible. Like almost all the things you see in the Book of Revelation, it has a start in Genesis, and develops throughout scripture. Genesis 2:10 says, “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden.” Psalm 46:4 says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the most high.” In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet saw a vision of water coming out from under the door of the temple. He said in 47:5, “it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through.” He added in verse 9, everything will live where the river goes.” In John 4:14, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 7:39 adds, “but this he spoke concerning the spirit.”
The river is emblematic of the Spirit flowing, and Revelation 22:1 continues, saying it was “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” The river, representing the Holy Spirit, transmits and communicates the things of Christ. As Jesus said of the Spirit, “He will take of mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). He’s bringing the redemption of Christ as He flows out of the throne of the Lamb, the Lamb who shed his blood for us. He also brings at the same time the authority of God, because the Spirit as a river flows out of the throne.
Next on this divine tour, the river flows “through the middle of the street of the city” (v. 2). The river coincides with the street. Life and walk are always connected. In fact, the Christian walk is one of spiritual life, so when we say, “walk in the spirit,” we mean walk in the flowing life of God.
Verse 2 goes on to say, “also on either side of the river, the tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the Nations.” Actually, the tree of life had been closed back in Genesis 3, when mankind fell into sin, but it opened again later. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:10, “Our Savior Jesus Christ abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
This tree also coincides with the river. What’s the difference in terms of spiritual life experience between the river and the tree? The river carries and brings, but the tree roots and feeds. One provides direction and delivery, but the other substance and stability.
The benefits and results of these life experiences begin to appear in verse 3: “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it.” As the throne releases a river, producing a street with a tree of life, all the curse gets chased away. When the powerful life of God flows, the troubled heart of Matthew 15 receives purging and cleansing. This naturally leads into the rest of the verse, where “his servants will worship Him.” The service here is coupled with absolute adoration.
Verse 4-5 continues, “They will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light and they will reign forever and ever.”
The throne rules the city, the river waters the city, the street navigates the city, the tree feeds the city, and all of this drives the service and the worship of God forever. Only life in Christ can create and sustain this reality and guarantee this end trajectory.
As a young service member who was about to go overseas, I had to sit through orientation classes. Among other things, we were told that any electrical equipment needed a power converter before you could plug it into the wall. The German voltage rating is twice that of the United States. One of my buddies didn’t get that memo. He plugged a new tape deck directly into the wall. I saw the aftermath of that little apocalypse by looking into the case later on. It was as if he had smoked a hog inside it.
When I came back to the U.S. though, I wondered what would happen if I ran a German device on American lower voltage. No harm, right? The device would simply run slower? And the answer was, it did, and it burned up—though in a less dramatic way. It seems without sufficient power, the tiny widgets that redistribute heat wouldn’t operate, and so my German device quietly died.
Without life in Christ, we don’t have enough voltage to even run a good marriage, let alone an idyllic community. Jesus told us in John chapter 3, “You must be born again.” The life you were born with the first time is not enough for the kingdom of God. A second birth is required.
And in John 3:16, we’re told, God gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in him would not perish, but would have eternal life. First John 5:13 says, “He who has the Son, has the life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Only this life can power the fantastic city of the New Jerusalem, and you must believe in Him to get it.
Jesus also provides instructions for those of us who have already believed in Him and gotten “the life.” John chapter 15 says, “Abide.” Once you have eternal life, remain, stay in it. Yes there is a world full of concerns, causes, and directions. But Jesus says, “Stay!” When we don’t abide in our new birth, we default back to our old one, a birth with an old mortal life that is too weak to even make basic ethical relationships work.
Right now in our country, identity politics are on the rise. These encourage us to claim as our primary identity first birth categories, that is, race, national origin, or cultural upbringing. The pressure to do so has become an almost moral imperative, and yet our first birth identity has zero when it comes to the kingdom of God—no eternal life, no ability to see, no ability to enter. That’s why we got born again to start with, because we realized our first birth was not going to pay off.
I’m a white man raised in the Bible Belt, and that birth did nothing for me in terms of being justified, intuitively knowing Jesus Christ, serving in the Holy Spirit, outfitting me for eternity. Neither has your race effectively done any of those things for you, either. In fact, when we start living as though we haven’t been born again, and instead, abide in our old life, the first casualty is the holy city. At least in our experience, it fades, then disappears.
When that happens, there’s no throne in your heart anymore, just your opinions ruling. There’s no river, just your energy. There’s no street of gold, just one of asphalt. There’s no tree of life, just commodities. There’s no service, just activism. There’s no worship, just addictions. And finally, there’s no you, ruling and reigning in the dignified way God intended, just you engaging in one-upmanship.
May God have mercy on us to live the life of the second birth, so we together could experience the holy city.