Friday, September 28, 2012

"... And There Was No Longer Any Sea"

At the end of the book of Revelation, John begins his decription of the new heaven and the new earth with an unexpected observation:

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. (Revelation 21:1, ESV)

When describing the new creation ... an amazing, beautiful, and perfect place where believers will spend eternity ... why is it that the first thing John mentions is that there is no sea?  When reading Revelation 21 and 22, there are several things that stand out more vividly in the average reader's mind than the fact that there is no ocean, so why is it so significant to John that he mentions it first?

Commentators have weighed in on this question over the years. One commentator pointed out that three fourths of the present earth is covered with water, so the fact that there is no ocean in the new earth is a striking difference between the two. Another commentator made a case that the sea is often used metaphorically in scripture as being the source of evil. (Revelation 13:1 would be one example of this.)  Both of these interpretations have some merit.  However, in my youth I once heard a preacher suggest a reason that would have been of a much more personal nature to John.  The following picture helps illustrate this (click on the photo for a higher resolution):

The picture shown here is of the small island of Patmos.  At only 7.5 miles long and 6 miles wide, the sea was never far from those who lived on the island.  In Revelation 1, John tells us that at the time of his visions, he was "on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 1:9b, ESV). In that same verse, he mentions that he is a "brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus" (Rev. 1:9a, ESV).  This suggests that he was there due to persecution, and the church fathers confirm this by telling us that John was sent to the island of Patmos by the Roman Emperor Domitian.  According to church tradition, he was banished there for about 18 months.  Sending prisoners to an island was one of the more humane ways that the Romans punished people they didn't like.

Thus, John was essentially a prisoner on this island when he received his revelation.   He may not have been in chains, but he was essentially locked in a "cage" with the water forming the bars on every side.  The sea was a physical barrier between him and the people he loved.  Many people today take vacations to beautiful places similar to the island of Patmos to enjoy the waters of the Mediterranean.  To them, the sea is an object of beauty and a place for recreation. However, at this point in John's life the sea was an obstacle separating him from loved ones.

In light of all this, it makes sense why the first thing John noticed in the new creation was that there was no sea. The thing that stood out to him most was that there was nothing that was going to separate him from the family and friends that he loved so dearly.  Out of all the beautiful and amazing qualities of the new heavens and the new earth, his first impression of this place was that the sea had been removed and he could enjoy the fellowship of other believers forever and ever.

Ultimately, there is no way (this side of heaven) for us to be sure what John was thinking when he penned those words.  But it is at least plausible that this is the reason he mentions first: "there was no longer any sea" (Rev. 13:1, NIV).

For more information on Patmos, see my post on the BiblePlaces Blog and the webpage on Patmos on the BiblePlaces website.  The photo is complements of