Before we begin, we need to begin at the beginning:
Revelation 1:1: The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
Some scholars think this was the title for the entire book. Regardless, it introduces the text. The most important word for us here is “signified,” which means to give a sign or symbol. In other words, we are told in the very first verse that what will be presented in the Book of Revelation will be presented symbolically. This is very, very important information as we get to chapter 21, because we need to read it with the idea in mind that we will be taught symbolically. It is not John’s intention that we read about the city as a literal city but rather as a symbolic representation of something else.
The passage we’ll look at is what is left after all that is evil is done away (see Rev 21:1, 5-10).
10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
This is not the first mention of a city in Revelation; go back to chapter 18 to see the contrast between God’s city and the great city Babylon. A good exercise might be to make a chart comparing the two cities and see what you find. One thing you will notice is that they have some of the same adornments (i.e., pearls). The point here might be that (1) Babylon attempts to deceive by trying to look like The Real Thing and/or (2) you can’t tell just by looking which place is which.
The fact that this city descends from heaven suggests that we are about to see what it looks like when a city (i.e., a group of people living together) live according to God’s blueprint.
11 Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
Light is always an important idea. The helterskelter building practices and poverty of ancient cities meant that sections would be dim, dismal, and unsafe. This one is bright with God’s light.
12 And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:
13 On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.
Twelve is a symbolic number, indicating priesthood (think tribes, apostles, etc.). So having twelve gates suggests that one enters this city through the power of the priesthood.
14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
In fact, the very foundation of this city is the priesthood. Or, in other words, the power of God. This city is founded on the power of God.
15 And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof.
The angel will measure the city or: explore it in more detail to teach John more about it.
16 And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.
In other words, the city is a cube. Note again that the size is a symbolic number (thousand has the sense of amplifying) based on the idea of priesthood, so the dimensions of the city suggest priesthood power as well. Note also that the size here is roughly equal to that of the entire known world at the time. (In other words, this is a big, big place.) Note also that the innermost part of the temple is a cube; the implication is that the entire city is the Holy of Holies.
17 And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.
The wall is woefully inadequate compared to the height of the city. This suggests that it isn’t a defensive wall, which is startling because the defensive wall was so important to ancient cities. But this city is not under threat. Note also that 144=12 * 12, so again we have the suggestion of priesthood undergirding this city. In fact, every single measure mentioned in this section is related to twelve, implying that priesthood is the key idea for understanding this city.
18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.
19 And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;
20 The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.
What does it mean to be pure gold like clear glass? There are many possible answers here, but one I like is the idea of perfection.
The actual identities of some of these stones have been lost to the ages, but we do know that we are talking about the gems of the high priest’s breastplate here. Again, priesthood symbolism.
21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.
The famous pearly gates! Again, an image of perfection.
Some summary thoughts: I think it is a terrible waste of an opportunity to read this literally. First, it is contrary to the intentions of the author. Second, it leaves you with a juvenile understanding of a (really ugly cubic) city being plopped out of the sky. But, by looking for symbols, we see that the main message about this city–repeated over and over again in these verses–is that it is all about priesthood. When God organizes a city (=a group of humans together) it is done according to the order and precepts of the priesthood. What is the end result of all this?
Revelation 21:3-4 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
If there is a more beautiful or powerful passage of scripture, I do not know of it.
This post is a response to this post, but I feel the need to expand the pericope because the text isn’t done with the description of the city yet.
22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.
The temple would have been one of the central features for most (all?) ancient cities, not just Jerusalem. So to say that there is no temple is pretty amazing. But the point of a temple was a special place where people would be symbolically in God’s presence. Here, it is unnecessary because the entire city is in God’s presence.
23 And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.
24 And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.
This is a paradoxical image: people should be bringing gifts to kings; kings shouldn’t be bringing gifts! The point is that the greatness of God’s city is so great that the greatest mortals are brought low.
25 And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.
Life in an ancient city–so dangerous!–must have been terrifying. The closing of the gates at night, to prevent thieves and bandits and warring armies from entering the city–provided a small measure of comfort. But imagine a city where the gates don’t even need to be shut!
The image continues in chapter 22; read it.
Why does Revelation use such wacky imagery? Why not just come out and call a spade a spade? Historically, apocalyptic usually becomes popular when people feel threatened by persecution. That may be the case here. Additionally, as one scholar said, “The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.”
I want to unpack that statement for a minute. Early Christians were surrounded by images of Roman power. When I have taught Revelation, I usually bring in a quick slide show of modern images of power: corporate logos, national flags and symbols of defense, political leaders, etc. I show those for a few minutes and ask the class to think about images of power. Then I pull out the church art–pictures of Christ and the prophet. And then I ask them to think about images of power. Well, you couldn’t order a Gospel Art Picture Kit in the first century. There were virtually no Christian images of power because no one could afford them (or feel safe owning them). But there were images of Roman power (statues, etc.) everywhere. How could Christians retain their commitment to ideas of God’s sovereignty in the face of this discrepancy? Well, the Book of Revelation is trying to give them new images of true power.