The Holy City

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DESCRIPTION OF THE HOLY CITYOne of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:9-27)

Background – Of all the places on earth, Jerusalem is considered the most sacred to both Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims. The city was considered holy because
the temple was located there and because Christ was crucified there. The city of Jerusalem has been considered an earthly archetype of the eternal, Heavenly city. For many Christians, the eternal Jerusalem is considered the equivalent of Heaven, but this does not appear completely Scriptural. According to Revelation, the New Jerusalem is said “to come down out of heaven from God,” and becomes the eternal habitation of God with His redeemed people on the new earth (Revelation 21:1–4).(1)

Spiritual Character – New Jerusalem is described by one of the same group of angels who had the seven bowls.(2) The description here in Revelation 21 parallels the one given in Revelation 17. The ancients commonly taught using a form of rhetoric of contrasts. John is using this method in Revelation when he contrasts Babylon the harlot with the New Jerusalem.(3) The New Jerusalem is called “the Holy City,” also in contrast with the earthly Jerusalem, which spiritually was compared to Sodom in Revelation 11:8. As early as Revelation 3:12 the New Jerusalem was described as “the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from My God.” Many expositors regard the promise of Christ in John 14:2, “I am going there to prepare a place for you,” as referring to this city.(4)

The phrase New Jerusalem appears only twice in the Bible, once near the beginning (Revelation 3:12) and once near the end of the Book of Revelation (Revelation 21:2). In the first instance, the risen Christ speaks to his people amidst the conflict in this world. Among his promises to those who conquer is that they will one day be citizens of the New Jerusalem. The latter reference shows the fulfillment of this promise.(5) There are five passages elsewhere in the New Testament that help to fill in the background to Revelation 21. In Galatians 4:21-26 Paul speaks of “the Jerusalem that is above,” the mother city of all who receive salvation by faith and are “born as a result of a divine promise.” They are contrasted with the present city of Jerusalem belonging those “born according to the flesh.” In Ephesians 5:25–32 Paul speaks of the bride of Christ, by which he means the Church. In John’s vision the bride is the city. In Philippians 3:20 we are told that the Heavenly city is not simply the future home of believers, but also the place of their present citizenship. Finally, Hebrews 12:22 makes the same point that those who believe have arrived already at the Heavenly Jerusalem.(6)

The New Jerusalem is described as it will be in the eternal state, and it is said to be “a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Because the Church is pictured in Scripture as a bride (2 Corinthians 11:2), some have tried to identify the New Jerusalem’s inhabitants as specifically the Church saints, excluding saints of other dispensations. However, the use of marriage as an illustration is common in Scripture, not only to relate Christ to the Church but also Yahweh to Israel.(7) In other words, this Jerusalem will likely be the home of all God’s people, Jew and Gentile, from Old Testament and New Testament times. In some respects, this seems to be not only a promise for the future, but a present reality. Christians belong to it already, and it gives them both an ideal to strive for in this world and a hope to anticipate in the next. Yet the fact remains that everything John records in the last two chapters of Revelation belong to a world that will ultimately be fulfilled only after the first heavens and the first earth have passed away. This is a world which is (to us, at any rate) still in the future. Taking all these Scriptures into account, we may come closest to understanding the New Jerusalem if we see it as the community of Christ and His people, which will appear in its perfection only when this age has come to an end.(8)

John says the city shines with the glory of God. The glory of God has appeared in various places throughout history. God’s glory dwelt in the tabernacle and then in the temple. Today, His glory dwells in believers and in His Church. For all eternity, the glory of God will be seen in His Holy City.(9) This is not merely the Shekinah-cloud, but God Himself dwelling in the midst of her.(10) Obviously, such glory is difficult to explain as it transcends anything that has thus far been experienced. So, John tries to describe what he saw and to relate it to what might be familiar to his readers. The overall impression of the city to John was a gigantic brilliant jewel compared to jasper. That is was clear as crystal indicates its great beauty. The jasper stone known today is opaque and not clear. It is found in an assortment of colors, and John apparently was referring to the beauty of the stone rather than to its particular characteristics. Today one might describe that city as a beautifully cut diamond, a stone not known as a jewel in the first century.(11)

Physical Characteristics – The city’s description follows the pattern of cities with which John’s readers were familiar. Thus, it is described as having foundations, walls, and gates. The foundations speak of permanence, in contrast to the tents in which “pilgrims and strangers” lived (Hebrews 11:8–10). The walls and gates speak of protection. God’s people will never have to fear any enemies. Angels at the gates will act as sentries,(12) although with Satan and his demons forever banished to the lake of fire, there will be no enemies to be protected from.

John saw a gigantic city that was square (or cube) in shape, and surrounded by a great, high wall with twelve gates. The twelve gates bore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The number twelve is prominent in the city with twelve gates and twelve angels, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve foundations, twelve apostles, twelve pearls, twelve kinds of fruit, with the wall 144 cubits (twelve times twelve), and the height, width, and length, 12,000 stadia (about 1,400 miles).(13) The fact that it is equal on all sides indicates the perfection of God’s eternal city.(14) Nothing is out of order or out of balance. The measurements are staggering! If we take a cubit as eighteen inches, then the city walls are 216 feet high. If a furlong is taken as 600 feet (measures differed in ancient days), the city would be about 1,500 miles square (approximately two-thirds the size of the United States)(15), assuring us that there will be plenty of room for everyone.(16)

The city has walls on the north, south, east, and west with three gates on each side and with an angel standing guard at each gate. Both the Church and Israel will be in the city. The former is represented by the apostles’ names on the foundations, and the latter by the names of Israel’s twelve tribes on the gates. The distinction between Israel and the Church is thus, for whatever reason, still maintained.(17) In Ezekiel, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan (for which Manasseh is substituted in Revelation 7:6), are on the east (Ezekiel 48:32); Reuben, Judah, Levi, are on the north (Ezekiel 48:31); Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, on the south (Ezekiel 48:33); Gad, Asher, Naphtali, on the west (Ezekiel 48:34). In Numbers, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun are on the east (Numbers 2:3, 5, 7). Reuben, Simeon, Gad, on the south (Numbers 2:10, 12, 14). Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, on the west (Numbers 2:18, 20, 22). Dan, Asher, Naphtali, on the north (Numbers 2:25, 27, 29).(18) Including the tribe of Levi, there were actually thirteen tribes; and, including Paul, there were thirteen Apostles. When John listed the tribes in Revelation 7, both Dan and Ephraim were omitted, perhaps indicating that we should not press these matters too literally. John is simply assuring us that all of God’s people will be included in the city (Hebrews 11:39–40).(19)

While the beauty of the city may be symbolic, no clue is given as to the precise interpretation. Since it is reasonable to assume that the saints will dwell in the city, it is best to take the city as a literal future dwelling place of the saints and angels. John declared that he did not see a temple in the city because God the Father and the Lamb (God the Son) are its temple. There will be no need for light from the sun or moon because the glory of God will provide the light. As John explained, the Lamb is its lamp. From the fact that the nations (the Gentiles) will be in the city, as well as Israel and the Church, it is evident that the city is the dwelling place of the saints of all ages, the angels, and God Himself. The description of the Heavenly Jerusalem in Hebrews 12:22–24 itemizes all those mentioned here and adds “the spirits of righteous men made perfect,” which would include all other saints not specifically mentioned. John learned that the gates of the city will never be shut, and because God’s glory will be present continually there will be no night there.(20) Night in the Bible symbolizes death, sin and sorrow. These things are banished from the city forever. The fact that the gates will never be shut indicates that God’s people will have access to the city from every part of His renewed universe.(21)

John noted that some items were missing from the city, but their absence only magnified its glory. There will be no temple, since the entire city will be indwelt by God’s presence. The secular and the sacred will be indistinguishable in Heaven. The sun and moon will be absent since the Lord is the light of the city, and there will never be any night (see Isaiah 60:19).(22) The glory and honor of the nations will be in the city, and everything that is impure … shameful, or deceitful will be excluded. The inhabitants will be only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. It is interesting that in the six references to the book of life in Revelation only this one calls it “the Lamb’s” (Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15).(23) The mention of nations in Revelation 21:24 and 26 suggests that there will be peoples (plural) on the new earth. Since in the eternal state there will be only glorified beings, we must not think that the earth will be populated with various nations such as exist today. Instead, these verses reflect the ancient practice of kings and nations bringing their wealth and glory to the city of the greatest king. In the heavenly city, everyone will honor the “King of kings” (see Psalms. 68:29; 72:10–11; Isaiah 60).(24)

Though the description of the city does not answer all questions concerning the eternal state, the revelation given to John describes a beautiful and glorious future for all who put their trust in the living God.(25)

Up Next – The last vision.

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References

  1. Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). In Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (p. 344). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  2. Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 21:9). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
  3. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 21:10). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 984). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  5. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1135). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  6. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1136). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  7. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 984). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  8. Carpenter, E. E., & Comfort, P. W. (2000). In Holman treasury of key Bible words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew words defined and explained (p. 344). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  9. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 623). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  10. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 602). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  11. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 985). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  12. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 623). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  13. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 986). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  14. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 623). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  15. Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 856). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  16. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 623). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  17. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 986). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  18. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 602). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  19. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 623). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  20. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, pp. 986–987). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  21. Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (pp. 856–857). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  22. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 623). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  23. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, pp. 986–987). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  24. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, pp. 623–624). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  25. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, pp. 986–987). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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