The City of Babylon in the Scriptures represents a false city and a false system of government and a false way of commerce, if you will. It’s man’s forgery of God’s holy city the New Jerusalem.
The most important insights into the big picture of work, however, come in the concluding chapters, where the worldly city Babylon is set against God’s city, the New Jerusalem. The introductions of the cities in 17:1 and 21:9 are set in clear parallel:
Revelation 17:1–2 (ESV)
17 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.”
Revelation 21:9–10 (ESV)
9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,
Babylon represents the dead-end street of humanity’s attempt to build their culture apart from God. It has every appearance of being the paradise for which humanity has always longed. It is no coincidence that its gold and jewels recall those of the New Jerusalem.
Revelation 17:4 (ESV)
4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality.
Like the New Jerusalem, Babylon exercises authority over the nations and receives their wealth (note the references to “the merchants of the earth” in Rev. 18:3 ).
Revelation 18:1–3 (ESV)
18 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. 2 And he called out with a mighty voice,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
She has become a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
3 For all nations have drunk
the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,
and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.”
and the lament of the sea traders in Rev. 18:15–19
Revelation 18:15–19 (ESV)
15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
16 “Alas, alas, for the great city
that was clothed in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,
adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls!
17 For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”
And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
“What city was like the great city?”
19 And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out,
“Alas, alas, for the great city
where all who had ships at sea
grew rich by her wealth!
For in a single hour she has been laid waste.
But it is in fact a counterfeit, doomed to be exposed by God in the final judgment. Especially instructive is the cargo list in Revelation 18:11–13 (see Bauckham, “Economic Critique,” which describes the luxury goods flowing into Babylon).
Revelation 18:11–13 (ESV)
11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.
And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore—cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.
The final note about “human lives” likely relates to the slave trade, and it is the final nail in the coffin of Babylon’s exploitative empire: she will stop at nothing, not even trafficking in human flesh, in pursuit of sensual self-indulgence.
The lesson that God would judge a city for, among other things, its economic practices is a sobering thought. Economics is clearly a moral issue in the book of Revelation and in the rest of the Bible. The fact that much of the condemnation appears to stem from its self-indulgence should hit with particular force at modern consumer culture, where the constant search for more and better can lead to a myopic focus on satisfying real or imagined material needs. But the most worrisome thing of all is that Babylon looks so close to and in fact seeks to copy the New Jerusalem. God did create a good world; we are meant to enjoy life; God does delight in the beautiful things of earth. If the world system were a self-evident cesspool, the temptation for Christians to fall to its allures would be small. It is precisely the genuine benefits of technological advance and extensive trading networks that constitute the danger. Babylon promises all the glories of Eden, without the intrusive presence of God. It slowly but inexorably twists the good gifts of God—economic interchange, agricultural abundance, diligent craftsmanship—into the service of false gods.
At this point, one might feel that any participation in the world economy—or even any local economy—must be so fraught with idolatry that the only solution is to withdraw completely and live alone in the wilderness. But Revelation offers an alternative vision of life together: the New Jerusalem. This is “the city that comes down from heaven,” and as such it is the consummate representation of God’s grace. It stands in stark contrast to the self-made monstrosity that is Babylon.
At one level, the New Jerusalem is a return to Eden—there is a river flowing through its midst, with the tree of life standing by with fruit-laden branches and leaves for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). Humanity can once again walk in peace with God. Indeed, it outstrips Eden, since the glory of the Lord itself provides the illumination for the city (Rev. 22:5).
But the New Jerusalem is not simply a new and better garden: it is a garden-city, the urban ideal that forms the counterweight to Babylon. There is, for instance, still meaningful human participation in the life of the celestial city come to earth. Central to this, of course, is the worship people bring to God and the Lamb. But there seems to be more than this in the note that…
Revelation 21:24–26 (ESV)
24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
In the ancient world, it was desirable to build a temple with the best materials from all over the world; this is what Solomon did for the temple in Jerusalem. More than that, people would bring gifts from far and wide to adorn the temple after its completion. It is probable that the image of kings bringing their gifts to the New Jerusalem flows from this background. It does not seem too much of a stretch to imagine that these gifts are the products of human culture, devoted now to the glory of God.
We must also consider the implications of Old Testament visions of the future, which see it in meaningful continuity with present-day life.
Isaiah 65, for example, is a critical background text for Revelation 21-22 and provides its foundational teaching, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (cf. Rev. 21:1). Yet this same chapter says of the future blessings of God’s people,
Isaiah 65:21–22 (ESV)
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
God created humans to exercise dominion over the earth, which entails creativity. Would it be sensible for such a God to then turn and regard work done in faith as useless and cast it aside? On balance, it seems far more likely that he would raise it up and perfect all that is done for his glory. Likewise, the prophetic vision of the future envisions people engaged in meaningful activity in the creation. Since God does not go into detail as to how this transfer of products from the now-world to the new-world works, or what exact things we might be doing in the future state, we can only guess at what this means concretely. But it does mean that we can be “always excelling in the work of the Lord, because [we] know that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Work in the New City of God is restful work not toil under the curse.
Revelation 14:13 (ESV)
13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
How can we square that clear indication of rest from labors with the claim that there will be work in Heaven?
Well, the word translated “labors” in that passage is the Greek word, kopos, which is always used to emphasize the negative aspects of work. In most places it shows up in the New Testament, English translations render it as “trouble” or “labor” or “toil”—all words with a negative connotation.
In fact earlier in Revelation, John uses the same word and the ESV renders it as “toil” (Revelation 2:2). This was the same word Paul used to describe his suffering for the ministry in 2 Corinthians 11:27, “In toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
Kopos is the word New Testament authors used when they wanted to emphasize the fatigue of work. And as we have already explored, the fatigue, toil, and pain which so characterize our experience of work now are not coextensive with the concept of work but are rather consequences of the Genesis 3 curse.
Work is not necessarily toilsome and painful. In other words, work is not necessarily hostile to rest.
It’s interesting how Isaiah 65:21-23 describes life and work in the New Jerusalem saying there will be the building of houses (21), farming (21), and work which is no longer in vain (23). It’s that vanity of work which is so hard, isn’t it? It is not rest from work we desire, but rest from toil, frustration, and meaninglessness.
Many things will cease in Heaven. Sinning will cease, war will cease (Micah 4:3), and tears will cease (Revelation 21:4), but work will not cease. Not only will this work be restful, but it will also be enjoyable.
Before the Fall, work was enjoyable, not toilsome. It was unfrustrated by the thistles and thorns of pain and confusion which now seem so synonymous with work. That means when we are living on the restored Earth, work will be no longer be cursed but be returned to its Edenic perfection.
Why will work be so much better in Heaven? Because the curse from Genesis 3 will be lifted. “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will serve him.” (Revelation 22:3).
Work in Heaven is something to look forward to, not to dread. When the Lords makes all things new, and the taint of sin no longer has any corrupting influence, our labor will again be very good.
Theology of Work website