Revelation 21

Chapter 21

v1: Another vision. This time “a new” heaven/sky (same word) and earth as the first had passed away in 20v11. Spoken of by Isaiah, this is the realm where God’s people will be blessed with long life, an absence of futility, and freedom from suffering – where God will delight in Jerusalem, and all mankind will worship him with awareness of the rebels who have been destroyed by fire (Is 65-66). The point is that this eschatological age long awaited is now coming into being, with the old having passed.
     Specifically, we are told the sea was no more – referring to “the sea” we have come across throughout. It’s possible this is: (1) The “sea of glass” that separated creation from God’s throne (4v6, 15v2). Supporting this is the theological truth that God’s throne will now be on earth. (2) The normal sea (5v13), implying all the watery chaos from which land was formed will have gone. Supporting this is that this is the dominant use in the book. Earth, sky and “sea” come together throughout, and the sea is the place Babylon is throne down to and so the place from which the dead are given up (20v13). (3) The sea as figurative for the abode of Satan and his demonic hoards (12v17, 13v1). Most likely is a combination of (2) and (3). This is not to say there will be no actual sea in the new creation, but that the sea so far as it was seen as a place of evil that the dead were consigned to will be no more – just as “death and Hades” will be no more.
     v2: Here we must ask whether there is a new heavenly abode for God that is created alongside the new “heaven” denoting the sky and cosmos. It’s not at all clear that there is. The focus is on the material creation, and the fact that the new Jerusalem comes down from God implies constancy to the spiritual realm where the redeemed have been residing. Alluding to 3v12 and Isaiah 65, the city is to be the centre of the new creation. Whether or not it is a literal city is uncertain due to figurative language here, but that would certainly make most sense of the prophecies about Jerusalem. For now, we note it is the “holy” city in being figurative of the people of God who are set-apart for his service. They come “down from God” where they have been kept safe, just as Paul pictures the souls of the dead returning with Christ (1 Thess 4v14). And contrasting the prostitute Babylon as symbolic of ungodly society, this city is prepared as a “bride” as she represents the church - picking up the theme throughout the Bible of God’s people being married to him by covenant. Know she is “prepared” and “adorned” in the sense that she is purified and clean, being clothed in garments of deeds washed white in the blood of the lamb (Eph 5v27). In 1st century weddings the groom would meet his bride and take her to the wedding feast. This is the idea here. And it is one of love and mutual delight as with a wedding.
     v3: The loud voice from the throne is God as this is their seat. Verses 5-7 confirm this. Speaking from there, it is the voice of the creator king who rules over all. He calls the reader to “behold” and so see the city coming from the sky, declaring how God will now dwell with man. The is the covenant hope (Ex 6v7) foreshadowed in the tabernacle and temple, restoring the intimacy of Eden where God walked with Adam. The sense is that God will reside in the city as was the case in Israel. He will care for the redeemed as his, and they will serve him. “God himself” stresses the enormity of what is being said.
     v4: And with God as their God, the people who are the new Jerusalem will enjoy the fact that “the former things” will have passed away. This gives us insight into what is “new” about the “new creation.” The emphasis isn’t on its material makeup per se, but on what is experienced there. The best way of understanding prophecies about the Messiah reigning over the earth from Jerusalem and Abraham’s descendants receiving the land, is to see the new creation as this creation with its same land masses and geography, renewed. It is “new” in the sense that it is to experience this world without sadness, death, grief or suffering – or dissatisfaction, toil, threat or want (Is 65v21-23). Certainly this will have a material aspect in the creation being “liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8v21) and so freed infertility in the land (Is 65v21), from the “labour pains” of wars, famines and earthquakes such as those detailed in chapter 6 (Matt 24v7-8), and it seems from animal (and perhaps plant) violence, death and decay (Is 65v25). The language of the earth and sky fleeing from Christ’s presence (20v11) and being purged with fire might therefore refer simply to the passing of the old order in being purging of these things (2 Pet 3v12), rather than of a totally new universe. These are figurative descriptions, just as 6v14-17 describes the sky and mountains being removed before then recording how rulers will call for the mountains to fall on them!
     v5: The second “behold” is as God declares he is “making all things new” in the sense of beginning this new age with a renewed world. And, again, to reassure the reader in a world that seems so far from that of the vision, John is told to write these things down as they are “trustworthy and true.” What relief.
     v6: That certainty is underlined by the declaration “it is done.” Finally the old order of sin, death, evil and suffering is passed. God declares himself the Lord who spans all history and so the one who can bring it all to pass. And he promises the thirsty to drink from “the spring of the water of life” without payment. It picks up images of the river in Eden, the waters from the temple in Ezekiel, those flowing from Jesus as the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit in John 4 and 7. All God promises present renewal, future resurrection and the regeneration of all things, all stems from God’s Spirit. And we share in it all be being filled by him – drinking forever from him. But we shouldn’t miss the allusion here to Isaiah 55v1ff as well. This OT context tells us this is all bound up with God’s new covenant in Christ, and calls the reader with those of all nations to ensure they seek the LORD by turning from sin “while he may be found,” with the promise of satisfaction in God within a new creation. It’s a call to persevering with faith in Christ. And the “without payment” should be noted. That perseverance doesn’t earn the blessings. They are a gift to all who belong to Jesus.
     v7: So the reassurance comes to those who “conquer,” which is the great call to those addressed by the letters. These things are the heritage (ie. the inheritance) of those who overcome evil and stand firm in persecution. They are addressed now as individuals and so personally. Such a person will have God as their personal God and be adopted as his son, and so receive what Jesus himself receives. It doesn’t get more intimate and astonishing than this - to inherit the new world as God’s children.
     v8: As if this isn’t enough to encourage perseverance, the alternative is outlined. The sins listed not only reflect allegiance to Satan and the beast, but the compromises of those who turn from Christ – “the cowardly” who give up in the face of threat, and “faithless” who therefore turn from him to another. Even if the other sins aren’t committed then, this is a strong word to any who fall way from faith. “Detestable” is a strong word describing how such people are viewed, and perhaps linking the sins of apostacy with the general sins that follow. “Murderers” may refer to those who have killed or supported the killing of Christians, but of course applied broadly too. The “sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters” are all sins we have seen to have marked out those who follow the beast (9v21). Promiscuity that shows no regard for God’s order for sex nor his character of faithfulness will always be a mark of godless society. As is magic that looks to superstition or the occult for the power or control of the future that we should look to God for. In both senses and more then, unbelief is idolatry in rejecting him in order to look to fakes for what he gives. “Liars” may refer to all who follow the great deceiver, but especially those who falsely claim to be faithful despite this faithfulness (3v9). One thinks today of those within churches who claim to be Christians when actually displaying these sins, or those outside who claim to know the true God or to living a good life when by God’s standards they are not. As we’ve seen, their “portion” which denotes their inheritance, will be the lake of fire which is hell. They will be immersed in God’s wrath with the devil and his evil rulers (20v14-15). So the Christian should not for a moment be enticed by them or their practices.
     v9-10: Now comes one of the plague angels. Why? Perhaps to signal wrath is over, or that it was for the sake of the church. It calls John to come to be shown the Lamb’s “bride” – which we know to be the church (Jn 3v29). To be carried “in the spirit” is a visionary term in which John feels as if he is moving to a high mountain as a vantage point. There he sees “the holy city Jerusalem” descending from God’s presence in heaven. Clearly John sees a literal city, but it is almost certainly intended as a figurative description of the church as the people of God. John’s readers would have known you can’t have a pearl the size of a gate (v21). That’s not to say there won’t be a literal Jerusalem in the new creation. Old Testament prophecy implies there will (Is 60, cf. Rev 21v24-27). It’s just that this description is symbolic. But whatever the case, we are seeing that the spirits of dead believers until Christ returns are safely in the presence of God, from where they will come to reign upon the earth. 1 Thessalonians 4v13-17 seems to portray them then gaining their resurrection bodies whereas Revelation has already pictured them raised for judgment. The harmony is most likely that the spirits of believers come with Christ, gain their resurrection bodies with everyone else for judgment, and then when the earth is renewed, descend to inhabit as seen here.
     v11-14: Now begins the long description that in some sense is summed by the first phrase: “having the glory of God.” The detail brings home that God’s people are now glorified. Displaying the excellence of his character and so image, and in physically perfect bodies harmoniously attuned the Holy Spirit, they are now made perfect for God’s perfect world. So the preciousness and beauty of God’s people is seen in the city having the radiance of a “rare” and so valuable jewel with the sort of reddy-brown sheen seen in jasper, but “clear” and so without blemish. Jasper was found on the High Priest’s breastplate, so it probably also speaks of the city being temple-like and comprising God’s people as a priesthood who now serve him.
     The “high wall” with angel-guarded gates denotes the security of the city. None can enter it without warrant, just as none could enter Eden because it was guarded by cherubim. Who can enter is defined by what follows. The 12 gates, 3 on each side of the cube, are inscribed with the names of Israel’s 12 tribes, whilst the foundations of the walls were inscribed with the names of the apostle’s “of the Lamb.” So this city is inhabited by the people of God. As the gates are the 12 tribes, we see that everyone who has entered is now classed as “Israel” in the sense that they receive the fullness of what was promised to Abraham, Israel and David. So we should not think the two references refer to the OT and NT people of God, nor Jewish and Gentile believers. The foundations of the city walls that keep people out are the apostles. So the condition of entry is belief in the apostolic message meaning that one has benefitted from the work of the Lamb. It is by this means that people share in God’s promises. So the reader who is suffering for the gospel is deeply reassured. This is their destiny. Their place in the new Jerusalem is certain.
     v15: The angel now has a measuring rod as with the temple in Ezekiel 40 and John in Revelation 11. He measures the city as a sign that it is complete and so contains every member. It is a cube in dimensions measuring 1500 miles! It’s cube shape speaks of perfection (the 12 sides each 12,000 stadia = 144,000) and of the holy of holies (1 Kgs 6v20) – the place of God’s presence. Its sheer size testifies that it contains the innumerable multitude, as does the measurement using the number 1000. The multiple of 12 throughout tells us this is the complete people of God as the tribes of Israel. It’s unclear whether the walls are 144 cubits thick or high (216 feet). The size of the city’s general dimensions suggest it must be thickness. Either way, the walls show the city is impenetrable but for legal entry. The note of “angel’s measurement” may simply be to say that, yes, the measurements really are that great – or to point out we are to see what is seen with human eyes as figurative of angelic , and so a vision. Again, we’re told the wall was of jasper but the city – presumably that behind it – was “pure gold, like clear glass.” Obviously John knew this was an impossibility. It may simply be a way of saying the city looked like being made of clear glass but with a gold reflection, perhaps from God’s glory. But the descriptive “like” refers to being like glass. It’s probably a way of saying it was made of such purity of gold that it was as smooth as blemish free as clear glass. It seems the foundations of the walls were visible in being adorned with 12 jewels (again signifying Israel) that pick up Eden and especially the high priest’s breastplate (Gen 2v12, Ex 25v7). This people are in Christ, their High Priest – a priesthood in themselves to serve God in a new Eden. The description ends with the gates made of “single” pearls – another sign of beauty, and one street through the city of glass-like gold, as the city buildings. By mentioning just one street, John may be commenting on the main thoroughfare rather than saying there were no other roads. But it may be he is contrasting the “street of the great city” in 11v8 – a reference to Babylon (or perhaps the old Jerusalem) contrasting the new Jerusalem from above,
     v22: What follows is striking, deeply significant, and fulfils Isaiah 60. John sees no temple as the enclosed place of God’s presence as would be expected. Instead we are told “the temple is” the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. Again, we see high Christology affirming both as the divine. But what’s striking is that in the new Jerusalem their presence can be accessed directly. Wherever they are is where people go to meet with them. “Almighty” stresses however, that God is no less awesome for it, and the presence of the Lamb reminds us of what he has done to make such access possible. Further, without God’s presence being shut behind a curtain, the city has no need of sun or moon as the glory of God and the Lamb lights it. The resplendent nature of Moses and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration suggests this is to be understood literally just as Moses’ face shone after having met with God – a visual manifestation of God’s excellence. And the link is significant perhaps in supporting a more literal reading to the description here.
     v24-27: Isaiah 60 predicted God’s glory lighting his people and the nations bringing their goods to them for adorning the temple. It is a prophecy to reassure Israel that although once judged, by God’s grace they will be honoured by the nations. What is interesting however is that this is fulfilled to an extend in the church age as the nations come to the Messiah and bring all they have into his service. What we see in Revelation 21, by contrast, is a picture of the new creation. The sense is that the city will be the world’s centre, lighting it up. And the kings and nations of the earth who have been redeemed will bring into it their “glory” – that is all that might be honoured (Is 60v13), their wealth and splendour and knowledge and culture. This is to adorn the city, perhaps by causing the flourishing of the godly society it symbolises.
     What’s intriguing here is that there is a sense in which the city symbolises the redeemed in their entirety, yet we are told the nations will be coming into it. This implies the city is a real city that is at the same time symbolic of all God’s people in being the centre of their world – just as Jerusalem once represented all Israel. The fulfilment of Isaiah 60 supports this understanding, whether or not the description of the city is figurative – and suggests it would be located where the original Jerusalem was (if literal dimensions, it would cover much of north east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula). The best sense of the detail then, is that the redeemed will be raised to live throughout the earth, but bring all they have and achieve to Jesus who will reign from the new Jerusalem. But there may also be a sense that the “glory” they bring is God’s “glory “ in them.
     Whether or not there is no literal night, the lack of night signifies that because it is only the redeemed of the nations left, there will no longer be any danger against which the city’s gates would need to be shut. And so we are told there will be nothing but day and open access - except of course for what is “unclean” and so unfit for God’s presence, and “anyone” who is “detestable” or “false” – probably implying both sinners and apostates. The point is that access is only for those whose names are written in “the Lamb’s book of life” and who have therefore given him their allegiance and had the robes of their deeds washed through his blood. They will be the inhabitants of the new creation.

Excursus : Is the new Jerusalem a literal city

The book of Revelation is highly figurative. We don’t expect Jesus to have a literal sword in his mouth, nor churches to actually be lampstands. Likewise, when we read of the city of the age to come lit up by God’s glory, there is no reason to think it means more than we were learning about churches in this age – that it will be where God is present and darkness is driven out. Given this, it’s quite possible all the detail of Revelation 21 is highly figurative as it all has deep significance in the light of the wider scriptures. Indeed, in the light of the wider book and the heavy symbolism of some of the background – such as Ezekiel 39, I think a literal new Jerusalem as described in Revelation is unlikely. It seems to me quite possible that chapter 21 is picturing godly society as opposed to the ungodly society of “Babylon,” rather an actual city per se.
     But, again, we cannot presume that. Sometimes things are both figurative and literal. Moses face shone with God’s glory as did he and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. Moreover, the darkness that symbolises judgement actually appeared at the cross. And here, we should note that the centrality of Jerusalem in the prophets make it likely that having descended the centre of the society of the redeemed on the new earth will be a renewed Jerusalem, meaning that the vision of the Lamb enthroned etc may have some literal fulfilment too. We have seen Isaiah 60 picturing the nations coming to Zion. Zechariah 14 does the same, with them coming to the very city their countrymen rose up against. And as Jesus will forever be embodied, he will no doubt need to base himself somewhere.
     In short, I think we can say it is probable that there will actually be a city as the centre of the new creation in the location the old Jerusalem was, and that will be the seat of Jesus’ rule. But we can say no more than it is possible that it will literally display some or all of the description Revelation gives.
     What we should be noting however, is that this is not to detract from the wonder of the description. It is intended to engage our imaginations and excite us. It may be figurative, but it is true. The society of God’s people will descend from heaven to populate a sort of worldwide Eden. It will comprise only those who have believed the apostolic gospel, yet everyone without exception that has believed it will be there. This society will therefore be massive in number, beautiful and safe with all that is evil shut out. And it will be filled and illuminated by the glory of God’s presence, with the most intimate access to and awareness of him, and the greatest privilege of serving his purposes in reigning over the new creation. Because of his life-giving presence this new society will therefore experience the life we were created for, finally free from the curse and so from all evil, pain, suffering, aging and death, flourishing in the use of our gifts and the harnessing of creation, all to the praise and honour of God, whose image we bear.