“Behold, I make all things new,” says the Enthroned One of Revelation 21. What did He mean by this announcement of a totally new creation?
One of the most misunderstood and misapplied themes in all of Scripture is that of “new heavens and new earth” mentioned in Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13. Peter wrote “we are waiting” (v. 13) for this reality, and many Christians think this is the case still for today: Christians are waiting for the appearing of the Lord, a final cataclysmic judgment of the world, and then a new heavens and new earth.
In the studies which follow, I am going to tell you why this is almost entirely incorrect.
The Promise of His Appearing
Different Worlds, Same Word
Peter’s answer to the scoffers (of 2 Peter 3:3–4) is notable in many ways, particularly in what it implies about the nature of the judgment—both in general and for what Peter’s audience should have expected in their episode. The relevant passages say,
For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Pet. 3:5–7).
First, there are translational issues here. I don’t like the ESV (above) here, nor am I happy with any one popular translation that’s out there. Considering that punctuation and verse divisions came much later than the earliest manuscripts, and looking at the overall message Peter is trying to give (that is, a parallel between the certainty of the prophesied judgment of Noah’s flood and that of Jesus’ prophesied return in judgment), I think verses 5–7 could better be translated like this:
For they willingly ignore this: that heavens existed long ago, and land out of water and with water gathered together, by the word of God the world at that time perished, being flooded with water; and the present heavens and the earth by the same word, are being reserved for fire, kept unto a day of judgment and destruction of godless men.
While this is not a noticeably large difference, the key thing of interest here is the parallel of the two certain judgments being effected by the same Word of God. During the flood, the “world at that time” suffered judgment “by the word of God”; this was for Peter enough to refute the scoffers’ view that all things continued the same since the beginning of creation. But since the same God and the same Word also now pronounced judgment coming upon “the present heavens and earth” (of Peter’s day, before the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem), then the scoffers were equally wrong for questioning this time as they were about ignoring the history of Noah. Translating the verse this way brings to the fore the eternal reliability of the Word of God despite and against the claims of godless men, the scoffers. Peter is not trying to spin some arcane theory of creation here, he is simply reemphasizing the trustworthiness of the “sure Word of prophecy” (1:19) in judgment, for this simple fact alone overturns the scoffers’ view of both history and the near future.[get_product id=”1333″ align=”right” size=”small”]
Second, there is both interplay and distinction between “heavens and earth” and “world” here which shows the two are not necessarily to be considered equivalent, although not mutually exclusive either. This means there is flexibility and overlap in how these phrases are understood and applied, and contexts will play a role in determining how they are used.
The heavens existed from long ago, and the earth standing out of and with the water. This “heavens and earth” is a clear reference to the themes developed in Genesis 1:1–10, which includes the separation of waters and earth beneath the heavens, and the gathering of the waters together.
(There may be some semantic relation between the Septuagint’s sustema (“gathering”) of the waters and Peter’s usage of sunestoma (“standing together”), which I translated interpretively as “gathered together,” in regard to the land and water. There should be further study of the etymology and usage of these two words. There should be some focus given to how closely Peter came to the Septuagint of Genesis 1 here.)
Interestingly, the heaven and earth, land and sea described here are not the subjects of judgment during the flood, per Peter, but rather the water of that creation was the agent which does the flooding; and it floods not the land or earth (ge in Greek) specifically, but the kosmos at the time. This indicates at least some linguistic distinction between the physical elements of creation per se, and perhaps even as a whole—“heavens and earth”—and some other way of understanding the totality of what God used those elements to judge, here called kosmos. In short, kosmos is not necessarily exactly the same as the “heavens and earth,” nor vice versa.
At this point we must be quick to note that Peter does seem to use the two categories interchangeably. In verse 6, speaking of the old world before the flood, judgment comes via the creation upon the kosmos that existed at the time. But in Peter’s reapplication of that certainty to his own time, judgment was about to fall upon “the present heavens and earth.” So there seems to be at least some interchangeability in the terms. To the extent that there is, both terms can have flexibility to be understood sometimes metaphorically, representatively, typologically, and at other times literally. However much their penumbrae of meaning may overlap, Peter’s presentation of the two judgments as parallel examples of God’s reliable advance of righteousness in the earth expects us to accept significant if not total overlap in this place. And while I do not think they are technically identical by any means, Peter’s parallelism is clear (I paraphrase):
The world [kosmos] of that time perished by the Word of God (v. 6)
The heavens and earth of this time will be destroyed by the same Word of God (v. 7)
Yet since the “world”—as in the physical heavens and earth—of Noah was not literally “destroyed” and was not literally replaced by a new physical world after the flood, we need not necessarily assume that Peter is looking for a total physical change in the planet in His time either. There would certainly be a physical aspect in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, just as there was in the physical flood of Noah; but the death of the old world and the birth of the new need not itself to be understood as a purely physical transformation. This is primarily a covenantal change which carries with it certain limited physical transformations.
The long story short, here, is that God’s covenantal judgments—however extensive and severe—at different times can delineate different “worlds” before and after, as well as different “heavens and earths” before and after, while not necessarily being understood as literally as possible. There was an “old world” along with a “heavens” that “existed long ago” which perished in the flood, and there was a “present heavens and earth” which were about to be destroyed in Peter’s time to make way for a new heavens and new earth which Peter and his audience “expected” as we shall see. Yet during none of these judgments was the physical creation completely obliterated and replaced. The change from “old” to “new” in each case had limited physical applications which pertained to God’s covenants with man, judgment on wicked men, and the preservation of God’s elect into the new world. Thus there are multiple applications of “world” and of “heavens and earth” which we ignore at our peril.[get_product id=”1351″ align=”right” size=”small”]
While this begs for a much more diverse study than I can pretend to offer here, the immediate application to 2 Peter 3 should be obvious: the heavens and earth about to be destroyed by no means necessarily refer to a destruction of the physical heavens and physical earth. Peter and his audience have something much simpler, though just as profound, in mind for this event. There was a destruction of the “present heavens and earth” coming in their lifetimes, after which they expected a new heavens and new earth,” and both of these expectations were built directly upon the teachings of Jesus.
Heavens and earth will pass away
We have established a close connection between Peter’s letters and Jesus’ eschatological predictions. This is particularly true of Matthew 24:34—“this generation”—as we saw. In this context, too, we should emphasize Jesus’ very next words in Matthew 24:35: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” These are obviously connected to the same predictions of Jesus. They also correlate directly to Peter’s “new heavens and a new earth.”
But what did Jesus mean “heaven and earth will pass away”? On the surface, this appears to be merely some kind of figure of speech to emphasize the invincibility of God’s Word compared to even the entire universe; but we should rethink this. Is it not the case, rather, that it is directly connected to the idea of a new heaven and earth about to come in the same time frame as the destruction Jesus just predicted. Indeed, seen from this viewpoint, Jesus was promising the passing of the present heaven and earth and the creation of a new heaven and earth in the lifetime of those listening to Him. And this is exactly the issue which Peter takes up in 2 Peter 3.
This connection is not only thematic, but literary also. Jesus’ word for “pass away” [pareleusetai] is repeated by Peter: “the heavens will pass away [pareleusontai] with a roar.” Peter is again applying the teaching of Jesus for his audience.
The word in itself does not denote so much a physical disappearance or death (in the way we today euphemize death as “passing away”), but is widely used to refer to passing or passing by in time, event, or physical distance. This is further evidence that the event Peter is describing is not a destruction of the physical planet, but a transition from one type of world order to a new one.
What then is meant by the obviously literal language Peter employs? What about the “heavenly bodies” and “all these things” being “dissolved,” the heavens being “set on fire and dissolved,” etc.? There is no good reason to take these literally in this case. There are good reasons not to, in fact:
First, to think that the literal “heavenly bodies” will literally “be burned up and dissolved” is nonsensical. Since “heavenly bodies” is held distinct from “the heavens” here, the phrase cannot refer to the heavens of the earth’s atmosphere (which could, technically, burn away and dissolve). If “heavenly bodies” is to be taken literally, it must refer to stars, planets, etc. But this presents a literal, physical problem: the vast majority of these heavenly bodies are stars. And what are stars? They are, to be blunt, balls of fire. Is God here saying He intends to destroy balls of fire by burning them with fire? Perhaps the insistent literalist will say God will use the hottest fire imaginable. But then again, stars are not just fire, they are essentially natural nuclear fusion reactors—the hottest temperatures imaginable. Again, is God warning us here that He plans to burn up the hottest temperature imaginable by using the hottest temperatures imaginable? Granted, with God all things are possible, but there seems to be something contradictory and irrational if this language is to be taken literally.
This problem is cleared up quite nicely when we understand this language to be like so many other Scriptures which describe God’s great covenantal judgments in terms of undoing creation (Isa. 13:10–19; 34:1–5; Ezek. 32:2–11; Joel 2:30–31; Matt. 24:29–30, to name a few). Whereas covenant blessing is frequently spoken of in terms of pristine creation language—gardens, rivers of water, abundant fruit, fish, etc.—covenant curses present the opposite: not the abundance of creation, but the undoing of it. This is exactly what we see in Jesus Olivet Discourse, as well as Peter’s instruction in 2 Peter 3.[get_product id=”157″ align=”right” size=”small”]
Second, the text does not say that the earth will be burned up and dissolved, only the heavenly bodies and the heavens. While the less reliable manuscripts behind the KJV do say the earth and its works will be burned up, the better MS tradition now reads “discovered” instead. While this sounds a bit strange at first, it is actually more biblical. Again, God is not burning up the literal universe here; this is a covenantal judgment destroying the present order of things and ultimately a judgment upon godless men. The burning up and dissolving of the heavens is a metaphorical removal of the heavenly firmament and exposing the godless sinfulness of the polluted land and the works in it—particularly, the faithless Jerusalem which had rejected and murdered Jesus. The godless will be exposed.
This is consistent with images found elsewhere in Scripture, and again during other covenantal judgments. For example, Ezekiel 8 has God giving Ezekiel a tour of the Temple complex, exposing all of the abominations of the Israelite people at the time. God had Ezekiel look through a hole in the wall (Ezek. 8:8) and discover what the Israelites thought they kept well-hidden (see 8:12). God then ordered a slaughter of the Israelites throughout the land. He specifically exempted the faithful and marked them (the elect), and then called for the judgment specifically to “Begin at my house” (Ezek. 9:6).
Now the ultimate symbol of the Old Covenant administration—the “present heavens and earth” of 2 Peter 3—was the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus had clearly predicted it would be destroyed, not one block left upon another (Matt. 24:2). James Jordan and Peter Leithart argue that the Temple was a symbolic “creation” of God, an image of “the heavens and the earth,” and I tend to agree.1 This is why the tabernacle/temple was adorned with beasts, lights, trees, fruit, a sea, etc., and separated from the other heavens by a ceiling (firmament), while a veil (again, a firmament) separated God’s presence in the Holy of Holies from everything else. While I do not have the time to develop this completely, let it suffice to say that God was about to destroy this particular heavens and earth literally, and by extension, the entire covenant world-order associated with it.
After Christ came in the flesh (the living tabernacle/temple), the Jews rejected Him, and He finished His work, any continued worship at that Old defunct Temple was rank idolatry in God’s eyes. It was an abomination. Thus Peter’s situation replays almost exactly that of Ezekiel 8ff. A covenantal administration lawsuit was in view, and unbelieving Israel was about to be destroyed for their abominations (rejecting Christ not the least of them), and Peter had even expressly told his readers that judgment must “begin at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17; cf. Ezek. 9:5).
God had rent the firmament to expose the land and all the works in it to His holy consuming presence. The godless men—unbelieving Jews—were thus discovered, exposed, and were soon to be destroyed.
Third, the translation “heavenly bodies” is not very supportable here anyway. Both times this phrase appears the Greek word is stoicheia, “basics” or “principles.” The KJV actually went with “elements,” but even this is not quite right if understood as physical elements, earthly elements. In the New Testament, the word is used to refer to principles of the covenant order, often of the Old Testament, to which the people should not want to return (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20; cf. Heb. 5:12). In one place, a group of Jews uses the verb form specifically to direct Paul to follow Old Covenant rituals (Acts 21:24). In other places, the verb form refers to a basic discipline of living righteously, by the faith, or by the Spirit (Phil. 3:16; Gal. 5:25; 6:16; Rom. 4:12). This is about all the biblical direction we get, and none of it refers to the heavenly bodies or to the physical elements of the world, earth, heavens, or universe. It seems the consistent theme throughout the biblical usage is that of basic principles of religion. Thus it seems that the “heavenly bodies” mentioned in 2 Peter 3 should probably be translated something like the KJV, but understood as a reference to the elements of the Old Covenant order. God was not about to nuke the stars, but He was about to destroy the Old Covenant Temple with all of its special rules, rituals, rites, vessels, and paraphernalia. These basic elements—which Paul calls stoicheia tou kosmou (“elements of the kosmos”)—would be no more.
And as that old heavens and earth passed away, Peter and his audience looked for—“expected,” “eagerly anticipated”—a new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.[get_product id=”1333″ align=”right” size=”small”]
New heavens and new earth
Peter concludes this section:
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
Most commentators make the connection between this passage and Isaiah 65:17: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa. 65:17). Isaiah’s description which follows of this new heavens and new earth includes the well-kown references to extra-long age (someone dying at 100 years is just a child and considered accursed for living so briefly) and changes in the nature of deadly beasts: “’The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD” (Isa. 65:25).
The exact phrase appears again in Isaiah 66:22, and later in the New Testament in Revelation 21:1. Again, I must shorten this study more than I would like:
While 2 Peter 3:13 is definitely related thematically to Isaiah 65, it is a mistake to think that there is an exclusive relationship between the Isaiah passage and any New Testament usage, as if Isaiah were giving a unique prophecy of a unique event in the future, and then Peter and John were announcing the fulfillment of that one predicted event on their horizon (or at any time in the future). It is not that Isaiah announced “X,” and that Peter and John were saying “the time has come for X,” after which time “X” is done and gone. Rather, both texts are partaking of a much larger theological genre which is replayed many times throughout Scripture, and which reappears particularly prominently in these passages. This is to say that while Isaiah 65 is certainly a backdrop to the New Testament references to a new heavens and new earth, it is not the ultimate basis of it.
That ultimate basis is found in Genesis 1. All talk of creations or new creations and the mechanisms God uses to bring them about are rooted in the first chapter of Scripture and cannot be understood properly unless we begin there. This is not just because the theme of “creation” in general begins there, as if we cannot discuss “new” creation without relaying the theological foundations of creation in general afresh every time. Rather, it is because creation and Spirit-nurtured re-creation are there exhibited as God’s primary modus operandi for every act of blessing He brings about (by contrast, acts of judgment are often presented as language of de-creation).
At many points in Scripture these relational/covenantal images are rehearsed, usually in conjunction with periods of transition and judgment. God creates primordial tohu and bohu (Gen. 1:2); the Spirit/Wind of God then hovers (flutters like a bird) over the waters, and out of this comes ordered creation (Gen. 1:2ff).
God created man out of the dry land, and His Breath/Spirit entered that lifeless form and became a living system and image of God. God’s is now carried in the Temple made without hands, man.
The same story plays out with Noah. God had Noah prepare an ark/Temple in which life was preserved, which floated upon the chaotic flood. After some time a dove is sent out—an image of that Spirit hovering over the face of the waters—until dry land appears. A new creation is born. Indeed, emerges from the shut-ark—an image of resurrection. He is then designated an ish hadamah (Gen. 9:20)—translated as “man of the soil” and understood as “farmer,” but h-adam-ah is also a clear poetic reference to the original man Adam who was taken from the adamah, soil. The image: Noah is a new “Adam” standing upon the dry land of the Spirit-discovered new creation.
It plays out again with the Israelites, living in the “without form and void” of the Sinai wilderness. The unfaithful die there (in judgment), but the faithful are led by the Spirit (pillar of fire and cloud), across the waters of the Jordan, into the promised land (a new garden).
Jesus replays this exact picture: He is baptized in the waters of the Jordan river; at that moment the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a buffalo—just seeing if you were paying attention—no, in the form of a dove, and this is indication to John the Baptist that Jesus is the Messiah. Indeed, Jesus is, once again, the new Adam, the new creation, the new Israel, the new Temple etc.
This Jesus then predicts the destruction of the Old Covenant Temple, while predicting the rebuilding of the Temple (His body) in three days—His resurrection. The Old Temple is thus being replaced by the New One. Thus, in covenantal language: the present heavens and earth were being replaced by the new heavens and earth.[get_product id=”1174″ align=”right” size=”small”]
This new heavens and earth was, first, the new Temple, the body of Jesus. The new “stone cut out without hands” which would grow and fill the earth (Dan. 2:35–45). But this body/Temple, we know, is not limited to Jesus’ physical/resurrected body alone. There is a whole doctrine of the “body of Christ” in Scripture (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12–27; Eph. 3:6; 5:23; Col. 1:18, 24; cf. John 15), and it is all implicated in the doctrine of the new Temple as well. Peter—it is fitting—mentions how believers are living stones that build up a spiritual house: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).
Paul is even clearer on this point. Union with Christ in “one new man” he connects with the new temple image:
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:18–22).
And just as Peter was looking for that new creation in which “righteousness dwells,” so Paul assures us that the “new man” is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).
In other words, the church—the body of all believers—are part of the new Temple. They are thus the new creation as well: the body of the new Adam, the new dwelling place of God via the Spirit. For this reason, Paul can say, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). The literal Greek here is so spare it is even more frank: Therefore, if anyone in Christ, new creation: the old things passed, behold, new have come.
This—the church—is the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells which Peter and his audience anticipated. It was already there definitively because of the finished work of Christ, but it was not fully ratified—confirmed in history, if you will—until the purge of that old system was completed, and until that old Temple—a stack of stones which were cut out with hands—was leveled to the last block.
New Creation, New Adam, New Eve, New Marriage
The doctrine of “new heavens and new earth” appears most prominently in the New Testament in Revelation 21, and it ties together all of these themes and then some. The text reads,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev. 21:1–5).
We have seen the doctrine of the new creation and the new Adam, and we have discussed “union” with Christ in which believers become part of that creation. These images are repeated here, largely, and a hint is given which both 1) involves the nature of that union, and 2) ties all of the imagery back to the original creation.[get_product id=”103″ align=”right” size=”small”]
First, we have already mentioned that there can be many heavens and earths in this regard, in this typological application, so we must not necessarily translate protos here as “first.” One could only be dogmatic about this from the basis of some preconceived eschatological system being imposed upon the text. Instead, verse 1 should better read, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away.” This is perfectly allowable within the range of normal meanings for protos and fits better with what else we’ve learned so far. This interpretation also fits better with the common translation of protos in the following verse 4: “former [prota] things have passed away.”
This understanding is also backed up by the fact that there was a “world” (kosmos) prior to the flood (2 Pet. 3:5), and yet another “world” after it (Gal. 4:3 et al), and yet the new heavens and new earth of 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 is yet another new creation. In other words, there is not simply a first and a second, but many recurring new creations covenantally speaking as God progresses his creation toward glory.
Second, we are introduced to another new creation theme, and that is the new Jerusalem. This is yet another reference to the church, for Paul tells us in Galatians 4:26, “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” This is in contrast to the earthly Jerusalem, which was in bondage to the Old Covenant, and which was soon to be destroyed, or “cast out” in Paul’s allegory (Gal. 4:21–31).
Indeed it is just this “Jerusalem above” which we meet again in Revelation 21, for this “new Jerusalem” was above, but descended “down out of heaven from God.”
This image is nowhere made more forcefully brilliant than in the book of Hebrews, where the author culminates his pro-Christian argument against the Old Covenant systems by telling the saints,
you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22–24).
So it’s clear that this new Jerusalem is indeed the New Covenant church. We also have reiterated the righteousness that dwells in this new creation which houses “the righteous made perfect.”
In one sense, new Jerusalem is indeed the church, wedded as a bride in union to Christ. In another image, new Jerusalem is a New Eve to conjoin the New Adam, and Paul says “she is our mother.” Since only those who are in Christ have life, we can say that this new Jerusalem is the mother of all living—and thus, truly a New Eve, New Adam’s Bride (Gen. 3:20).
Third, the connection between the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and the New Testament body of Christ/new Temple is seen in the language of the relevant passages:
the household of God, built on the foundation [themelio] of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph. 2:19–20).
And the wall of the city had twelve foundations [themelious], and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14).
Unless this foundation that is the apostles has more than one superstructure erected upon it, we must assume some vital organic connection between the New Testament “temple in the Lord . . . dwelling place of God” of Ephesians 2 and the “new Jerusalem . . . dwelling place of God” of Revelation 21.
Fourth, what really is of delightful interest here, in terms of biblical theology, are the images opened up by the phrase “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). This draws together creation, marriage, and covenant, and world-order all in one place.[get_product id=”1333″ align=”right” size=”small”]
A Bride Adorned, or Kosmetology School
We have encountered the idea of “world” (kosmos) and have seen than while it significantly overlaps with “heavens and earth,” it is by no means always identical. Without time to do an extensive study to hash out all of the instances, it will suffice to say that “heavens and earth” seem to be a much broader and more general category than kosmos is most often used to denote. Granted, “world” does have universal import in many cases (dare we deny it in John 3:16?), but too many uses of kosmos and its various forms denote something much narrower and more technical than the universe at large.
Significantly here, this new Jerusalem bride of Revelation 21:2 is said to be “adorned” as a bride for her husband. The word for “adorned” translates a form of kosmos—here a perfect passive participle, kekosmemenen (“having been adorned”). In its verb form—kosmeo, etc.—the word alerts us to the more technical meanings that we are not used to associating with “cosmos” in our vernacular. We are too used to thinking of the “cosmos” as the “universe”: Russian astronauts, space explorers after all, are called cosmonauts. Carl Sagan—an astronomer—wrote a book and TV series about the universe called Cosmos. We describe things of grand, interstellar scale as being “cosmic.” And yet we have a perfectly technical usage of the word in our vernacular which is even more common but does not seem to register as quickly in regard to kosmos, and that is cosmetic. Makeup, fashion, plastic surgery, hair styling—all aspects of kosmeo which register more with “a bride adorned” than with a “universe.” Much of the usage of the word in Scripture relates more to our modern cosmetology than to our astronomy. This is about arrangement, adornment, even decoration, more than the physical matter of outer space and solar system—except insofar as the solar system, etc. are understood as God’s intricate and aesthetic ordering of things.
Indeed, this is the sense we more often than not get from Scripture (with the exception, perhaps, of the writings of John, who uses the word inordinately and almost always has a universal meaning in mind). Just a few examples:
- The multitude of stars are referred to as “the host of heaven.” “Host” is kosmos (Gen. 2:1; Deut. 4:19; 17:3; Isa. 13:10 all LXX). Here the idea is “array” and the Hebrew word behind it is often applied to an army set in array for battle.
- In many cases ornaments of different types of apparel—in many cases, jewelry—are described by forms of kosmo (Ex. 33:5–6; 2 Sam. 1:24; Isa. 3:1–26; 49:18; 61:10; Jer. 2:32; 4:30; Ezek. 7:20; 16:11; 23:40–41; 1 Pet. 3:3; 1 Tim. 2:9; Rev. 21:2, 19). Here it clearly means adornment and even decorative adornment. It is often a cause of sinful pride and vanity.
- It is used to describe other types of decorations, such as of tombs, houses, and buildings (Matt. 12:44; 23:29; Luke 11:25; 21:5).
- It described the fashioning or crafting of things in a special way: for example, who can straighten [kosmesai] what God has made crooked? (Eccl. 7:13 LXX). Solomon “set in order” [kosmion] many proverbs (Eccl. 12:9).
Again abbreviating, what we see here is not just making in general, but purposeful, delightful, decorative, comely art. We see this as God’s creation, yes, but in kosmos He is making something that has beauty and attraction. He is an artist, painting His divine bride, a delightful companion, and falling in love with her. It is His bride specially adorned for Him.
Yet she is also a city. She is a system: both chaotically buzzing and orderly, predictable, grand, complex—just like the fixed constellations and host of heaven, and the armies of God in battle-array. Applied to the covenantal systems governing God’s people over centuries in different forms, God’s kosmos is more than a decorative adornment, it is a world order. And dare we say it? Every time God brings about a new heavens and new earth—a new kosmos—we may well be justified in saying God brings about a new world order.
So here we see the theology behind the new heavens and new earth—at least in an abbreviated version. It is rooted in Genesis 1 and 2. Noah preached it. So did the Patriarchs, Moses, and Joshua. Samuel knew it; David preached it and sang it several times. Isaiah pronounced it; so did Ezekiel, and all the prophets, really. Nehemiah lived it, in part. Jesus brought it about, and His apostles lived through its birthpangs. This theology has never changed, though it has been told many times. It lies at the heart of what 2 Peter 3 is saying, as well as Revelation 21. They are all connected. One logos, one word, manifested in several “worlds” so far.
- See Leithart, The Promise of His Appearing, 100. [↩]