2. the description of the city – 21:9-22:5
Three introductory observations:
First, the description of the city in 21:9-22:5 is largely based on the vision of the temple and city in Ezek. 40-48. What will become clear is that the consummate fulfillment of the latter is found in the former.
Second, there is an obvious contrast between the vision of the harlot in Rev. 17 and that of the bride in Rev. 21. Note the similarity by which the two visions are introduced:
“And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me, saying, ‘Come here, I shall show you the judgment of the great harlot. . . . ‘ And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness” (17:1,3).
“And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me, saying, ‘Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain” (21:9-10).
Clearly John is being shown that “the redeemed community is like a faithful ‘bride and wife’ to God in contrast to the ungodly community, which commits immorality through idolatry” (Beale, 1064). Indeed, each of the two cities (Babylon and New Jerusalem) is pictured as adorned with much the same attire (“gold,” “precious stones,” “pearls”; see 17:4; 18:12,16; 21:18-21).
Third, the question is often asked: Is this a literal city or a symbolic one? I take it to be symbolic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real, as if “symbolism” were a clever way of emptying the text of any truth value. The question must be asked: “What is it symbolic of?” A symbol is a way of directing our attention to something true and real in words and images that woodenly literal language could never accomplish. Note that “the eternal community of the redeemed (so 21:2,10) is equated with the detailed layout of the city in 21:11-22:5: ‘I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb, . . . and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem’ (21:9-10)” (Beale, 1062). Observe also that just as John was “shown” (17:1) the great whore (an obvious symbolic vision), so also he is “shown” (21:9) the bride. Other factors in the description of the city, such as its dimensions in 21:16-17, point to a symbolic interpretation.
a. the vision – 21:9-10
John’s prophetic experience “in the Spirit” is a clear allusion to Ezekiel’s experience (see Ezek. 2:2; 3:12,14,24; 11:1; 43:5). This clear verbal connection between their respective experiences may also confirm the earlier suggestion that “the vision following in Rev. 21:11ff. is to be identified with the blissful vision of the future temple in Ezekiel 40-48, which [also] was located ‘on a very high mountain’” (Beale, 1065).
b. the architecture – 21:11-21
We will examine each element in turn.
· The city is said to have “the glory of God” (v. 11). In the OT the physical temple was the place where God’s glory resided and was manifest. But in the new creation God’s presence (i.e., his glory) will abide in and with his people: they (we) are the holy city in which he dwells.
· On the “jasper” stone, see Rev. 4:3, where it likewise is used to describe the appearance of God’s being. Jasper “is an opaque quartz mineral and occurs in various colors, commonly red, brown, green, and yellow, rarely blue and black, and seldom white” (Johnson, 199).
· The city had “a great and high wall,” a reference most likely to the inviolable and secure nature of that fellowship with God which characterizes those within the city (cf. Isa. 26:1; Ezek. 40:5-6).
· The wall had twelve gates with an angel stationed at or on each one (vv. 12-13). These angels are similar to those of the seven churches (Rev. 2-3; see also Isa. 62:6). On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.
· The wall also has “twelve foundation stones” on which were written the names of the twelve apostles (v. 14). The number “24”, the sum of the 12 tribes and 12 apostles, has already occurred in 4:4. Some point to David’s organization of the temple servants into 24 orders of priests (1 Chron. 24:3-19), 24 Levitical gatekeepers (26:17-19), and 24 orders of Levites (25:6-31). I agree with Beale that “the integration of the apostles together with the tribes of Israel as part of the city-temple’s structure prophesied in Ezekiel 40-48 confirms further . . . that the multiracial Christian church will be the redeemed group who, together with Christ, will fulfill Ezekiel’s prophecy of the future temple and city” (1070). Thus here again we see an emphasis on the one people of God, comprised of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, who together equally inherit the promises.
· The image of an angel measuring the city-temple is drawn from Ezek. 40:3-5. The measuring itself portrays the security of the inhabitants. “This cordoning off of the city guarantees protection for God’s end-time community and especially guarantees that its walls will provide eternal protection, in contrast to old Jerusalem’s walls, which were broken through by God’s enemies” (Beale, 1072). See also Rev. 11:2, although there the protection was only spiritual as God’s prophetic witnesses were subjected to physical persecution. Now, in the consummated temple, God’s people are protected in every way, spiritually as well as physically.
· Although the city is initially said to be laid out as a square with its length and width being equal, John indicates that it is also a cube (“its length and width and height are equal”; v. 16). Each side is said to be 12,000 stadia. A stadion = @ 607 feet. Hence, 12,000 stadia = @ 1,500 miles.
· The wall of the city (v. 17) is 144 cubits (cf. 7:4-9; 14:1,3), i.e., seventy-two yards (216 feet). This fact points again to the symbolic nature of the city, for a wall of only 216 feet would be terribly out of proportion for a city that is 1,500 miles high. Some have argued that the 216 feet is the wall’s thickness. But again, 216 feet is only a fraction of the width needed for the base of a wall that is 7,000,000 feet in height! We should avoid exchanging bad architecture for disproportion!
· Anyone who would try to envision the literal appearance of the city according to the human measurements given by John would be understandably confused. That is why John immediately adds that this vision is to be understood more deeply according to its angelic, which is to say its symbolic or heavenly meaning (v. 17).
· We are told in 13:18 that the number of the beast, 666, “is the number of a man.” In 21:17 we are told that the angel who showed John the New Jerusalem measured its wall: “144 cubits according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements.” Thus we see a contrast between 666, the number of the beast, and 144 the number/measure of an angel. Interestingly, just as 666 is the numerical value of the Greek word “beast” (therion) written in Hebrew letters, so 144 is the numerical value of the Greek word “angel” (angelos) written in Hebrew letters!
· The material of the wall was “jasper” (cf. 4:3) and the city itself was “pure gold, like clear glass” (v. 18). If literal, how could gold be like glass? No matter how devoid of alloy and impurities, gold is still opaque, unlike glass which is transparent. But the problem only exists if one insists on a literal city.
· The foundation stones of the city wall are now enumerated. The list of 12 jewels is based on the list in Exod. 28:17-20 and 39:8-14 of the stones on the high priest’s breastplate. Note well that the jewels which in the OT represented the tribes of Israel are now applied not to the gates of the city, i.e., the twelve tribes, but to the foundation stones, i.e., the apostles of the church! See also 1 Peter 2:5.
· The jewels and gems that comprise the material of the city are not designed to evoke thoughts of wealth, as if to suggest that money will be in endless supply in heaven. Rather, they point to the transcendent beauty and splendor and holiness of God’s character.
· That we are dealing with prophetic symbolism (and hyperbole) here is evident from v. 21 where each gate is said to be “a single pearl”. How could there be a single pearl big enough that it would constitute a gate proportional to a wall that is 216 feet high? And how big must the oyster have been from which such pearls were derived? If one should respond by saying that God is certainly capable of creating an oyster that could produce such pearls, then one must acknowledge that he/she has departed significantly from what would legitimately be called “literal” hermeneutics.
· Finally, the words “street of the city”, found here in v. 21, occur elsewhere in Revelation only in 11:8 where it is said that the bodies of God’s prophetic witnesses were laid while the world looked on in contempt and derision. The phrase is repeated here to underscore that “the street of their former shame has now been replaced by the street of their eternal glory” (Wall, 254-55).
c. the temple: the Lord God and the Lamb – 21:22
When it says that John saw no temple it means no physical temple, no literal building such as existed during the time of the OT. There is a temple in the new heavens and new earth: God and the Lamb are themselves the temple! If this imagery is odd, recall that we have already seen the identification of the New Jerusalem with the bride of Christ.
It is actually quite stunning, and instructive, to consider that John applies the prophecy of Ezek. 40-48, in which the physical temple figures prominently, to the eschatological New Jerusalem in which there is no physical temple!
d. the luminaries: the glory of God – 21:23
Does this verse mean that there will literally be no sun or moon in the new cosmos? Perhaps. But it may also simply mean “that God’s glory is incomparable in relation to any source of light of either the old or the new creation” (Beale, 1093).
e. the residents – 21:24-27
These verses are a direct allusion to Isa. 60:3,5,11. It would appear that John interprets the pilgrimage of the nations to latter-day Jerusalem in Isaiah’s prophecy as being fulfilled in the future, New Jerusalem, of the eternal state. Several points to note:
· The “nations” and “kings of the earth” (v. 24) probably refers to those formerly antagonistic but subsequently redeemed from among the nations who will submit to God, praise him, and so become unified with redeemed Israel (e.g., Isa. 11:6-12). These “nations” remind us of the promise in 5:9-10 that Christ has redeemed people from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” But what is the “glory” that the nations bring into the city? In Isaiah it appears to refer to material wealth and resources. But here in Revelation it is the praise and worship and service of the people themselves. It is interesting to note that the only other occurrence in Revelation of the phrase “glory and honor” is found in 4:9,11 and 5:12 where it refers to the praise of God and the Lamb.
· The absence of “night” points to the unhindered access to God’s glorious presence as well as the fact that there will be no darkness to dim the brilliance of God’s glory. Indeed, as 22:5 indicates, the absence of darkness is due to the continual illumination that God himself provides.
· It is misguided to think that vv. 24-26 contain a literal description of Gentile people living outside the New Jerusalem with other redeemed Jewish people living inside, with the former engaged in some sort of ceaseless pilgrimage into the city. Let us not forget the wise words of Bauckham concerning the interpretation of prophecy: “Prophecy can only depict the future in terms which make sense to its present. It clothes the purpose of God in the hopes and fears of its contemporaries.” Beale echoes this principle:
“Prophecy portrays the future with language that is understandable to the prophet’s contemporary readership; the prophetic language of Isaiah employs imagery corresponding to the earthly social and cultural realities of his own day, which he could understand to describe realities of the new creation that were to be fulfilled in ways he probably could not have imagined. Similarly, Ezekiel prophesied about the more glorious future temple (chs. 40-48) according to the best language at his disposal, which was formed by his understanding of the old temple. It is unlikely that the prophet could have imagined that the fulfillment of that prophecy would be in a nonliteral structure and would be only in the Messiah and in God’s presence with his people in the new creation” (1098).
· Those described in 21:27 are the same as those of 21:8.
f. the life of the city – 22:1-5
1) the river of life – 22:1
This picture is clearly drawn from Ezek. 47:1-9 and Zech. 14:8, as well as being modeled on the description of the garden of Eden in Gen. 2:10 (“a river was going forth from Eden”).
This is the first of several examples in these verses where we see John linking the end of history with its beginning. In the consummation are features which characterized the beginning of time. It is not as though the end is a reversal to the beginning, “but the circumstances of the beginning are viewed as prophetic of the nature of God’s purpose in history. In all respects, however, the last things surpass the first in overwhelming measure, as we see in this paragraph” (Beasley-Murray, 330). If Gen. 3 tells the story of “Paradise Lost,” Rev. 22 tells of “Paradise Regained.” Heaven is but the glorious consummation of God’s original design for the Garden of Eden. What the first Adam lost by his transgression, the last Adam has regained by his obedience.
2) the tree of life – 22:2
It is possible that the street and the river are parallel with each other with trees growing between them. More likely v. 2a goes with v. 1b, in which case the “river of the water of life” is located “in the middle of” the city’s street. Likewise, the “tree of life” should be taken as a collective reference to a multitude of trees that line up on both sides of the river (as is the case in Ezek. 47:12). “The one tree of life in the first garden has become many trees of life in the escalated paradisal state of the second garden” (Beale, 1106).
The healing effects of the tree(s) of life extend to all peoples (“nations”) who have believed the gospel. This cannot be pressed literally, for according to 21:4 there will be no more death or pain or sorrow that require healing in the eternal state. Again, as we have seen so many times before, John uses imagery that corresponds to earthly realities with which he is familiar to describe eternal realities beyond his comprehension. Also, if the city “has no need of the sun or the moon to shine upon it” (21:23), the monthly yielding of fruit, which would otherwise be based on solar days and lunar months, must also be figurative. Thus the “healing” leaves indicate the complete absence of physical and spiritual want. Alan Johnson put it this way:
“The imagery of abundant fruit and medicinal leaves should be understood as symbolic of the far-reaching effects of the death of Christ in the redeemed community, the Holy City. So powerful is the salvation of God that the effects of sin are completely overcome. The eternal life God gives the redeemed community will be perpetually available, will sustain, and will cure eternally every former sin” (203).
3) the beatific vision – 22:3-5
Here we see that “the curse of physical and spiritual death set on the human race [as well as on the natural creation] by Adam in the first garden is permanently removed by the Lamb in the last garden at the time of the new creation” (Beale, 1112). And what will the saints do in heaven?
· They shall “serve” God (v. 3).
· They shall “see” God (v. 4a; see Exod. 33:20; Mt. 5:8; John 17:24; 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 Jn. 3:1-3).
· They shall enjoy the depths of intimacy with him (v. 4b; see the comments on 2:17; 3:12; 7:2-3; 14:1).
· They shall enjoy the depths of his presence (v. 5a; cf. Num. 6:25-26).
· They shall “reign forever and ever” (v. 5b).
Over whom or what shall we reign? Possibly, a) holy angels, b) fallen angels (in hell), and c) the created realm (animals in eternity?).