Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 NIV)
The passage of Scripture I have read most often in the three weeks since my mother’s death is Revelation 21:1-4. It portrays the Apostle John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth. The description is stunning. It’s beyond comprehension. How can a water cycle work if there is no longer any sea? If there is no sea, there is likely no rain as well. Apparently the water cycle is part of “the old order of things” which has passed away. I see beautiful symmetry here to the paradise described in Genesis 2:5-6, where rain had not yet fallen and the earth was nurtured by ground water. In John’s vision the curse of the fall has been reversed. Tears have been resolved and death has been removed. Only the presence of the Lord himself is better than that. What a promise!
This passage is comfort food to me. It’s also an enigma. Two days before my mother died, her pastor came to visit her at the hospice house. The family was all gathered around mom’s bed. Mom wasn’t really awake. The pastor asked if we had any Scripture requests. I quickly listed three or four passages, from which the pastor selected Revelation 21:1-4.
As she began to read, I settled back and closed my eyes, waiting for the familiar words. But the pastor was reading from a different version of the Bible and the words I heard were not familiar: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;” (Revelation 21:3 NRSV)
Suddenly my eyes flew open and my head jerked up. Wait a minute! “They will be his peoples”? Plural? It can’t be! God has only one people. I didn’t like what I had just heard. I suspected textual abuse grounded in a liberal agenda. I was distracted and agitated internally, although I didn’t say anything or indicate an objection. I was able to escape to the genuine comfort in the passage, but there was now a burr under my saddle which I needed to resolve.
The first thing I had to address was my bias. The text says what it says and it means what it means. Authorial intent has nothing whatsoever to do with what I want the verse to say or want it to mean. Good Bible study is a systematic search for revealed truth, not a recitation of preconceived conclusions. Faulty Bible study leads to faulty conclusions. I run into a lot of bad theology by people who are sincere, but sloppy in their Bible study. In short, motives matter. And methods matter, too.
The following week when I returned home, I opened my Greek New Testament to Revelation 21. I’m not a Greek expert by any means, but I was well trained in seminary decades ago. I know what to look for. And what I found surprised me. Two things, actually.
First, there’s a pesky textual variant here. In some manuscripts the word “people” is singular. In other manuscripts, the word is plural, which would be literally translated “peoples.” The publisher’s notes in my Greek text indicate this variant has a high degree of doubt about which reading is correct. I would have to do textual criticism to determine the correct word. But for me it’s been too long. I’m going to have to rely on the scholarship of others. A textual variant with a highly uncertain conclusion tells me that other people long ago struggled with the same question I had. When they heard the “wrong” reading, their heads jerked up, too. And somewhere a scribe changed the text along the way, intentionally or not, knowingly or not. Then others made copies. That’s why there’s a variant reading in some manuscripts. My first surprise was finding an unexpected textual variant. We don’t know for sure which reading is the original. I’m going to lean on the scholars who assembled the critical text of the Greek New Testament.
My second surprise was that the editors of the Greek New Testament ultimately chose the plural word for “people.” In fact, both the received Greek text and the critical Greek text use the plural (laoi), not the singular (laos). Surprise! There is, at a minimum, a grammatical argument for translating the passage, “they will be his peoples” if the plural reading of variant is correct.
But a grammatical argument is not enough. For starters, “people” is a tricky concept to distinguish between singular and plural. In the singular, it means the populace in general or a particular nation or ethnic group. The plural form of the word occurs only four times in the New Testament (Acts 4:25, Romans 15:11, Revelation 17:15 and Revelation 21:3) and generally refers to the nations or the peoples of the world. But it’s not always translated “peoples.” In fact, all the major English Bible translations (except the NRSV) translate the plural “laoi” as a singular “people” in Revelation 21:3.
The people of God is a thematic thread which runs throughout the Bible. In the Old Covenant, Israel was the people of God. In the New Covenant, the church is the people of God. Perhaps, together they might be the “peoples” of God in Revelation 21:3. Yet in a very real sense, God has only one people, those whom he has redeemed in Christ. The plural in Revelation 21:3 might refer to their origin in the nations of the world. But the support for that is speculative. Or it might refer to the nations turning to Christ at the end of time. When the nations turn to Christ, they will become his singular people regardless of their ethnicity.
In conclusion, I jerked my head up that day partly because of surprise and partly because of ignorance. I strongly affirm the standard translation “they will be his people” in Revelation 21:3. There’s room for genuine debate. The text does allow the possibility of the NRSV translation “they will be his peoples.” Yet the collective Scriptures are clear that God will assemble a singular people who belong to him from among the nations. It will be out of this world.
For a grieving heart, that’s comfort food.