The Rio Olympic Games have finished. I love the spirit of the Olympics, the absence of the ‘winner takes all’ culture of so much competitive sport, and the ability to celebrate every level of achievement. Competitors who have just run what appear to be the most brutally competitive of races turn at the finishing line to congratulate each other as friends and celebrate the achievements even of the person who came twelfth. While the Olympic movement has its own moral challenges and can occasionally show the worst in human nature, this peaceful gathering of nations can make us look forward with longing to a much, much more glorious gathering of nations, when the redeemed gather in the New Creation.
Which raises a question: will there still be nations in the New Creation? My instinctive reaction is to say that if we will not marry or be given in marriage at the resurrection, surely nations will be a thing of the past as well. But I am not so sure. The Book of Revelation makes some extraordinary statements that we have to reckon with. While we must always be guarded over prophetic statements in Scripture that have yet to be fulfilled, we should still wrestle with the text and read it in the context of the rest of Scripture. There are four statements in Revelation 21-22 that I believe are significant clues about nationhood in the New Creation.
The first comes in Rev. 21:3. The New Jerusalem is pictured coming down out of heaven, a new city where God will dwell with his redeemed people. John makes a truly monumental statement: ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them as their God.’ This is the ESV translation, though using the ESV marginal reading ‘peoples’ in place of ‘people’ in the main text. In the original manuscripts there is a textual variant between Laos (people) and Laoi (peoples), and Koester, Hughes, Mathewson, Morris, Beale and Bauckham all conclude that Laoi is the correct reading. The reason is that any scribe would expect the statement to read ‘They will be his people’, conforming to universal OT usage, and would have had no reason to amend it to ‘peoples’. The original must have been ‘peoples’, but it was amended to the singular. ‘Peoples’ must therefore be the reliable reading. If this is so, it is hugely significant. The New Creation will be a place of ‘peoples’, all of whom are united together in the new city of God and the Lamb. Their ethnic and national identity will be preserved, suggesting that it was always part of God’s plan for humanity. God’s plan was a diversity of nations brought to unity by their common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord; many peoples worshipping one God together.
The word ‘peoples’ occurs many times in Revelation, and in almost all instances it is used to emphasise the peoples of the earth being in captivity to the Beast and the City of Babylon. The peoples of the world are seen as divided, oppressed and enslaved to many different religions. Therefore, for John to take the same term ‘peoples’ in its plural form and place it at the heart of the most programmatic statement of the final vision of the New Jerusalem is extraordinary. The peoples that were divided and oppressed by evil are now God’s peoples, and God himself will be with them and be their God. They remain distinct peoples, with all the ethno-cultural significance that that includes, but they are united by the presence of the one God who dwells with them in a perfect eternal unity ‘as their God’.
John then goes on to tell us that these peoples and nations will live in the New Jerusalem, filled with God’s glory, and ‘By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.’ (Rev 21:24) There is a close allusion here to Isaiah 60, where nations and kings are drawn into the presence of the glory of God, and Isaiah lists an extensive ethnography of nations as coming to worship God. By using clear allusions to Isaiah 60 in his final vision, John is telling us that the glory and honour of these nations comes into the New Jerusalem. As these nations each had their own distinct history, culture and language, is it too much to contend that this cultural richness continues with them into the New Creation?
Some biblical scholars are cautious here, and limit their understanding of ‘glory and honour’ to the worship that is given to God and the Lamb. They replace their idolatry with the worship of the true God and give him glory. Yet John is portraying for us a city in all its life. While true worship characterises all the life of the city because no temple is needed, and the presence of God and the Lamb is the light of the city (21:22-23), the light of such worship is that by which the nations walk (21:24) which must be a reference to all aspects of their cultural life. I am inclined to agree with David Smith that ‘all of human labour, politics, art and culture which has contributed towards the establishing of the reign of justice and mercy which is God’s will, carries over into the heavenly city and has eternal value.’ We may think immediately of politics as grubby and dubious, but it is interesting that Smith sees it as something that can be redeemed. Where the use of political rule on earth has established justice and mercy and furthered the will of God, there is no reason to believe that it will not continue to contribute to the stability and organisation of the New Jerusalem. This may be why the ‘kings’ retain their identity, if only as a symbolic part of the vision, to emphasise that the New Jerusalem will have government and order shaped by justice.
John goes further in 21:26, saying that it is not just the glory of kings, but ‘the glory and honour of the nations’ themselves that is brought into the New Jerusalem. Surely this extends to their cultural life at a grassroots level, the rich cultural diversity of peoples and nations. All that has glorified God on earth will continue to glorify him in the New Creation. After all, worship does not just happen in gathered congregational worship. We glorify God in every good work done for his glory in daily life. God’s plan in Genesis 10 was a spreading and maturing diversity of nations, their cultures enriched by the different climates in which they settled and developed, the languages that they spoke to express and understand their shared experience, and the tapestry of history that each nation wove together down the centuries. This rich diversity was what he intended for all humankind. Indeed, linguistic diversity was not reversed by Pentecost, but rather honoured, and the same diversity of nations is underlined again here in Revelation 21. Life in the New Creation will be filled with all that is glorious and honourable from the cultures of all the nations, including linguistic diversity. If the redeemed come ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’, why should we assume that there will be one global language in the New Creation if all peoples will remain?
John gives us one final clue in Revelation 22:2 when he refers to the tree of life being ‘for the healing of the nations.’ This is more than an individual healing from the effects of the curse. We need to read this statement in a corporate sense, so that those redeemed from every nation find their national life together renewed or healed. Throughout history, nations in their rebellion, and under the curse of God’s judgement for that rebellion, have degenerated into all kinds of corruption, often with a combination of lawlessness and tyranny. This is often why nations that form and prosper end up breaking up and dying. But the picture in 22:2 is of nations enjoying a healthy and well-adjusted national life alongside other nations and peoples, dwelling together free from the evils of nationalism, delighting in the presence of the Godhead in the New Jerusalem. If the New Jerusalem will simply be a gathering of redeemed individuals, then John would not need to mention national identity at all. Nations would be an irrelevant category. But both 21:24-26 and 22:2 suggest that nations are part of the life of the New Jerusalem, where a diversity of peoples and nations live together in union with Christ and adopted by one Father.
Once we recognise this eternal future for God’s plan for nationhood, it has huge implications. As those who hunger for the glorious life of the New Creation, we should seek to bring foretastes of the healing of the nations to all our dealings with people from other nations. We should also be committed to honouring every nation and culture, and translating the Bible into every language. The heart of Christian mission is ensuring that the gospel is contextualised in every nation and people-group, because nations and peoples will inhabit the New Creation together in all their diversity, united in Christ.
 David Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations, (Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, 2011) 213. My emphasis added.