The Covenant Formula in Revelation 21:3

The Covenant Formula by RendtorffIn four previous posts, I provided a summary of points from Rendtorff’s The Covenant Formula. I became interested in the covenant formula due to my work in Revelation 21. Revelation quite clearly mentions the covenant in Revelation 11:19 when it refers to “the ark of his covenant.” I was not seeing additional explicit connections to the covenant until I ran across two instances of the covenant formula in Revelation 21. Rendtorff’s work helped me to see that the covenant formula does provide an explicit reference to God’s covenant with his people that goes back to Genesis 17 and his covenant with Abraham.

It might be helpful to repeat briefly what the covenant formula is and why its appearance in Exodus 29:45 is important for biblical theology of the covenant and of the Tabernacle/Temple. According to Rendtorff, the covenant formula has three basic “versions.” Version A is “I will be God for you.” Version B is “You shall be a people for me.” Version C is the combination of version A and B into a single statement (Rendtorff 13). Exodus 29:45 says, “I will dwell in the midst of the sons of Israel and I will be their God.” Rendtorff sees the promise of dwelling in their midst as the new element that God is adding to his covenant relationship with Israel. He says, “The newly added aspect is that one important reason for the deliverance [from Egypt] was that God now wishes to live in the midst of the Israelites” (Rendtorff 80, 90-91). Dwelling in their midst is an enduring part of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Ezekiel 37:26-28 predicts that it will be significant for Israel’s covenant relationship with God in the future, even as it was in the past (Rendtorff 90).

The Covenant Formula in Revelation 21:3, Exodus 29:45, and Ezekiel 37:27-28

Revelation 21:3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them as their God.’”

Exodus 29:45 says, “I will dwell in the midst of the sons of Israel and I will be their God.”

 In Revelation 21:3, a voice from God’s throne proclaims the significance of the descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven. Throughout Revelation, God’s dwelling place is in heaven. It is generally referred to as his “temple,” but is twice called his “tabernacle” (Rev. 13:6, 15:5). The descent of the New Jerusalem means that God’s “tabernacle,” his dwelling place, is now on the earth with his people. The theological import of Revelation 21:3 is difficult for any devoted student of biblical theology to miss.

To appreciate the importance of Revelation 21:3, one must read it in light of the Old Testament’s theology of the Tabernacle and the Temple. When God reveals the Tabernacle to Moses, he describes it as the place where he will dwell in the midst of his people (Exod. 25:8, 29:45). Beginning with Exodus 29:45, God repeatedly associates dwelling with his people with “I will be their God,” and he generally adds, “They will be my people”, that is, he associates it with the covenant formula (see especially Ezek. 37:26-27).

As a result, Revelation 21:3 is not so much an allusion to one Old Testament verse as to an Old Testament theme, namely, that God promises to dwell in the midst of his people and to be their God. In the Old Testament, an imperfect fulfillment of this promise occurs when God dwells in the Tabernacle or the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is a fuller, though still incomplete, fulfillment of God’s promise when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Then, its fulfillment continues when Jesus returns to the Father and sends the Spirit to dwell in us, which is related somehow to the Father and Son dwelling in us (John 14:17, 23). Even so, Jesus prays that someday the church might join him “where he is” and see his glory (John 17:24). In the New Jerusalem, we see the final and complete fulfillment of God’s promise. God’s true dwelling place is no longer in heaven, but on earth in the New Jerusalem, which is also the new Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1). Thus, we see here a clear, initial indication that the New Jerusalem is related to the fulfillment of the Tabernacle and the Temple.

The notion of fulfillment probably accounts for the plural term “peoples” in Revelation 21:3. The Old Testament expression introduced above, “they will be my people,” is a common expression that is linked to God’s covenant with his people, Israel (Exod. 6:7, Ezek. 37:27). In Revelation 5:9, God’s people include those who are purchased from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Therefore, when God’s Tabernacle descends to earth, he takes up residence “with men” and “they will be his peoples” (Rev. 21:3). Notice the intentional broadening of God’s people that is implied by both “men” and “peoples.” The people of the New Jerusalem include both Jews and Gentiles (the “nations”), which is a theme that will show up several times in Revelation 21-22. The people of God in its fullness will experience the goodness of having God truly dwell in their midst.

In conclusion, the people of the New Jerusalem are the people of the covenant who have God dwelling in their midst (Rev. 21:3, Exod. 29:45, and Ezek. 37:27-28). This is one among many indications that the New Jerusalem is both God’s city and temple.

Coming Up: The covenant formula in Revelation 21:7.

The Covenant Formula by RendtorffThe Covenant Formula

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