The New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9-22:5)

It is interesting that the book of Revelation begins with considering the church from an earthly point of view (the seven churches) and closes with a description that looks like a heavenly point of view. The best way to try and understand what is being said is to work through the description and work out what each aspect means.

John is given an expanded description of the church which was briefly given to him by the angel 1n 21:2. There he was told that the church was both a bride and a city, a reminder that she has a loving relationship with Jesus and is also a dwelling place with structures.

John has a similar experience to that of the prophet Ezekiel when he was taken to a high mountain to see what God was doing with his people (Ezek. 40:2). We will see the need for a very high mountain for John when we are told the size of the divine city – one would need a special viewpoint from which to see it. The dimensions here make those seen by Ezekiel seem small.

The first detail we are told about the church is its origin – it comes down from God in heaven, although we are not told to where. Probably, we are to assume that it descends on to the new earth. Moreover, it is described as very bright because it possesses the glory of God. Immediately, we assume that this must be the church in the eternity to come because of its possession of nothing but glory (21:10-11).

The features of the city (21:12-23)

We are then told that the city had a high wall with twelve gates (21:12-14). Usually a wall was built for defence purposes, so maybe John is being reminded that the city of God has a secure defence. In addition, each of the gates has an angel standing at it, and I suppose we could deduce that he is there to keep out those who should not get in. This does not mean that we should imagine some enemies will try and get in. Instead we are to see it as an illustration of the ongoing security of the church after Jesus returns and the new heavens and earth are here.

The gates are named after the twelve tribes and the foundations of the wall are named after the twelve apostles, and this could be a reminder that God’s people from all dispensations are one. Paul in Ephesians 2:20 says that the apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church, by which he means the message that they declared.

The gates are arranged equally, three facing in each direction. This tells us that people from north, south, east and west are welcome to come in. What does this mean? Think about this verse from Isaiah 60:11: ‘Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations, with their kings led in procession.’ The prophet says things there that are similar to our passage concerning the gates and the nations and kings. Could John be seeing the fulfilment of the prediction of Isaiah? After all, for a city to have open gates meant that it was secure from danger.

Moreover, the geography of the city indicates that the church is central to whatever plans God has in the world to come. His people will be involved in the outworking of his eternal purpose. We are not told what we will be doing, although earlier in the book we are told that the church will be following the Lamb wherever he goes. Because he is central, his people will be central with him.

The gates and the foundations of the wall, the wall itself and the street of the city are likened to precious jewels (21:18-21). Each gate is a pearl and each foundation stone is linked to a jewel. This probably points to the inestimable value of the people of God as well as to the brightness connected to their glorification. One Old Testament verse that comes to mind is from Malachi where the prophet speaks about the Lord collecting his jewels on the day that he returns the second time.

The measurements of the city indicate that it is very large (21:15-22). Twelve thousand stadia is about fourteen hundred miles. Its length, width and height are the same. On our earth, such a city extends beyond our atmosphere. What can we deduce from such dimensions? Obviously, a large number of people can live in it.

The fact that it is a cube reminds us of another important cube in the Bible, which is the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was where God dwelt in the midst of his people in the temple. Now the whole city, the church, is the temple and God Almighty and the Lamb (the Father and the Son) dwells within the church. The bigness of the city surely points to the bigness of God.

John is reminded that the church is not a physical creation dependant on natural light (21:23). I don’t think verse 23 is stating that the sun and moon will not exist after the renewal of all things, although they may not be in the new universe. Instead we are reminded that the light found in the church is different from physical light. Rather the light that God’s people will experience comes from their union with God.

The residents of the city (21:24-27)

John is then told that the light given to the church will influence all the nations as well as those who have authority (kings). Who are these nations and who are the kings? They are not enemy nations or hostile kings. I would suggest that the nations and the kings refer to the people of God. Here we have a fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham about the nations and royal descendants.

The people of God can be described in numerous ways. When they are described as nations, we are reminded that there will be people there from all the nations of the world and that in some way their sinless national features will remain. Yet there is not a hierarchy of nations, as if one ethnic group is more important than another. When they are described as kings, we are reminded of the status they have – they reign with Jesus – and the focus is on their individual contributions to the life of the church (they bring their glory into the city). In the eternal world, there will be harmony and activity.

We are then told about two aspects of earthly life that will not exist in the church in eternity. First, there will be no night. Night-time was when the gates of a city were shut because that was the time when enemies could sneak in under the cover of darkness. In this life, the church often has nights when her enemies cause havoc. But that will not happen in the world to come.

Moreover, nothing unclean will enter the city, and this term describes people who engage in sinful practices. This is a reminder that the members of the church will then be entirely holy. In this life, it is often the case that tares are mixed up with the wheat and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between them. Nothing sinful will exist in the future perfect church.

John is reminded that there is an exact register of the inhabitants of the city. I suppose we are being told the same point as is stated when mentioning the unclean. It is possible to be on a church roll and not to be listed in the book of life. Again, in the ancient world, the authorities did not know exactly who lived within a city (a bit like the problem today connected to immigration). But the names of the church in eternity will correspond to the Lamb’s book of life. 

The street of the city (22:1-5)

The angel then takes John to the most important place of the city, which is the throne of God and of the Lamb. They are depicted as a shared fountain, which is the source of life for the inhabitants of the city. The water of life could be a reference to the Holy Spirit or it could be a reference to what the Holy Spirit brings to the city. This river reaches all the inhabitants – there is only one street in which they all live and the river keeps flowing, bringing the riches of God’s grace to all of his people.

John has already been told about the street in 21:21 where he was told it was made of gold. One assumes that the street is as long and as wide as the city. This would mean gold everywhere, which is a way of saying that the church will be ablaze with glory. What is rare here – gold – is used to depict how wonderful and great the life of the church will be.

The street of the city contains a very large tree which extends over the river and covers each side of the street along its length, which means that it will be accessible to all the inhabitants of the city. It looks as if the tree is likened to a shade, a reminder that the church then will be a place where all is comfortable.

Moreover, this tree of life bears fruit continually, on which the inhabitants can feed. There is nothing wasteful about this tree – even its leaves ensure healing. Leaves were a kind of medicine in the ancient world. I don’t think John is suggesting that any of the inhabitants can become ill; instead, he is saying that as long as they use the tree of life they will be healthy. Access to the tree of life is a reminder of the fullness of eternal life. In Eden, Adam and Eve were barred from eating of the tree of life because it would have meant for them an eternal existence without hope. In contrast, because God's people will have been restored to glory, it will be safe to have eternal life.

Then John describes the activities of the members of the church now that the curse has gone. They shall be before the throne and engage in constant worship of God through the Lamb. Their worship in this life did involve access to the throne and adoration of its divine occupants. Yet it was often done as if they were in the night, unable to understand fully what they were doing and what God was revealing. In the eternal world, the members of the church will have full access to God through the Lamb. The light they will have will be direct, unlike light through a creation of God (the sun) or through what they made themselves (a lamp).

Unlike what happened to Adam in the original temple in Eden, the members of the church of Christ will never lose their royal status and they will reign for ever and ever. Throughout eternity to come, they will be the royal priesthood serving God through the leadership of their Mediator, their Prophet, Priest and King.

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