Revelation

and The New Jerusalem 

-Rev. Jeremy Hall
 

          Chapter 21 is the climax of the book of Revelation.  This chapter and the one that follow it are the fulfillment of the tradition of Old Testament prophecy in that Jesus reveals to John of Patmos the final coming of the kingdom of God and the culmination of the promises and purposes of God.[1]  Revelation 21 restores the brokenness of the whole of creation, replacing the old cosmos with a new one.  “This redeemed Earth shall exceed the glory of the first Earth, as much as the second Adam exceeds the glory of the first Adam.”[2] The first part of this chapter tells us about the nature of this new creation.  It is a city, a city where the triune God lives in its wholeness.  It is a cosmos set right, where all things have been made new (Rev. 21:5), and where God lives in connection and relationship with God’s people (21:3) “and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (21:4)  It is a city where the righteous of the nations dwell (21:8), and where the images of the Garden of Eden are restored (21:5, 22:2).  While these passages speak to the essence of the city, its inhabitants, and its function, I wish to focus in on verses 9 through 17, discussing the material of the city, its construction, and its form.

           

          “One 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.’” (21:9)  Translators often group verse nine with the prior section which includes discussion of the righteous of God and an antithetical vice list. The verse directs our attention to the heavenly being that will guide John on the next segment of his heavenly journey.  We discover that this tour guide is one of the angels who participated in the pouring out of the bowls of God’s wrath from chapter sixteen.  The last time we saw one of these angels (I suggest that it is the same one since it seems to have such an interest in cities) was in chapter seventeen when the angel, as it does here in chapter twenty-one, invites John, “Come, I will show you.”  The angel takes John to see a city just like chapter twenty-one. While our passage from chapter twenty-one contains a vision of the perfect will of God made manifest in a city, chapter seventeen introduces us to the city of Babylon. (17:1)  Babylon is the opposite of God’s New Jerusalem. While the New Jerusalem is described in traditional near-eastern fashion with female language as the “Bride of the lamb,” the city of Babylon is called with the name “Great Whore.”(17:1)[3]  Another contrast in John’s destinations is the location of these cities.  When the angel takes John to see Babylon the visionary is taken to the wilderness, a desolate place of danger (17:3), where he sees the city covered in blasphemous names (in contrast to the new Jerusalem being adorned with the names of the tribes of Israel and the Apostles, but we will get to that later). (17:4)  When the angel takes John to see the second city he is taken to the top of a mountain, where eastern cultures build their temples and high-places. The tops of mountains are where the gods live; other cultures have supposed that high mountains are the pillars that hold up the heavens.  Perhaps this is even an idealized Mount Zion, since the revelator will encounter the fullness of the presence of God there.

           

          It is also worth noting the significance of this angel’s given title, “one of the angels that held one of the seven bowls.” (21:9, 17:1)  This angel who is introducing John to the New Jerusalem, the physical manifestation of all of the promises of God, is one of the angels who just a few chapters prior was unleashing the wrath of this same God upon the Earth.  This angel’s participation in the destruction of the old creation and the unveiling of the new one is not accidental; the author is attempting to communicate something to the reader.  The same power that God has used to tear down the old, God is using to bring in the new.[4]  Perhaps the words of Isaiah forty-five are on the author’s mind, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create calamity: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isa. 45:7)  While the author of Revelation never quotes the Old Testament, he most certainly knows it well.  The book contains near constant references to other passages of scripture; one of the favorites among them is Isaiah.[5]  G.B. Caird wrote it like this, “John believed that the demolition squad had also interest in the reconstruction for which they had cleared the ground.” [6]   

           

          At this point John is “carried away in the spirit” for the second time in the book.  He is taken to the high mountain, which is the site of the city.[7]  From this high mountain he is shown “the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:9)  Tina Pippin refers to the bride as the most passive female character in the book.  Unlike the whore, the woman clothed in the sun, or Jezebel, the bride only speaks once, and not on her own, neither does she act of her own accord.  We are told that she “make herself ready,” as an object for the wedding ceremony in chapter 19. (19:7)  Her only function is to arrive at the wedding.  While we should not miss her beauty, grandeur, and purity, it is problematic that these are the only qualities which the author exposes.  As soon as she shows up in this passage she is immediately transformed into the city of the New Jerusalem.[8]  In this passage her main function is to be measured and discussed in the context of her physicality.  Problematic portions aside, we see that she is beautiful, drenched in symbolism.[9]   Eugene Boring points out that the language used to describe her is forced into the realm of poetry because of her impressive beauty.[10]  She has been eagerly awaited. The whole chapter, arguably the entire book, has been preparing the way for her arrival.  The old creation has been torn down for her. Sin has been removed from the equation, “heaven and earth have been replaced and the sea, the primordial symbol of chaos, is no more.”[11]  At this point Jerusalem becomes the center of attention.[12]   

      

           It is not by mistake that the city is found on a “great high mountain.” (21:10)  The notion that the heavenly city would be positioned on top of a great mountain has its ancestry in various myths and eastern cultures.  There is an ancient myth which states that there is a great mountain in the far north where the gods lived.  The mountain is north, at the pole, and is the axle point upon which the constellations spin.[13]  There is also the tradition of the archetypal Mount Zion positioned at the center of the cosmos. This Jewish concept crosses over with the myth of Heylel attempting to climb the mountain to become king over the stars and being cast down; in Isaiah Heylel is replaced with the king of Babylon, (Isa. 14:12-14) and in Ezekiel by the king of Tyre. (Ezek. 28:12-16)[14]  In 1 Enoch 18, Enoch has a vision of a great mountain where the YHVH God lives and where the tree of life is planted; John the revelator draws on these images as soon as he reveals in Revelation twenty-two that the tree of life exists inside of the New Jerusalem.  It seems likely that John, living inside of the Roman empire, would have access to the Hellenistic myths of Mount Olympus where the pantheon of gods dwell, perhaps he is not only incorporating Jewish and near-eastern myth and expectation, but also reclaiming the image of the heavenly mountain from the Romans, as if to say, “yes, there is a mountain, but it is our god who lives there.” 

          This mountain which may have been in the north, at the center of the cosmos, has been moved to the center of the stage, perhaps to be in line with Isaiah chapter two when the prophet tells us that, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” (Isa. 2:2)  Regardless of which images and myths John is attempting to call on, it seems clear that he is making a theological statement more than a geographical or topographical one.[15] 

At this point, John is shown the New Jerusalem descending from heaven. (Rev. 21:10)  This is in line with John’s understanding of his role as a prophet, in the same prophetic tradition as the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, sourcing his authority in that mantle rather than apostleship.  Elizabeth Fiorenza locates this John in an early Christian prophetic school, in Asia Minor. [16]  Fiorenza briefly explains that this is one of the best reasons to distance this author from that of the fourth Gospel, though it is a fleeting mention as she assumes that her reader has already established this.[17]  John’s writing to the seven churches “is not instruction in Old Testament classical, Jewish apocalyptic, or early Christian traditions but prophetic proclamation.[18]”   This is the second time that John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven.  The author has already recorded this earlier in the chapter.   

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (21:1-2).

 

So why does John feel the need to report the same event twice, and in such close proximity to the last mention of the event?  Does this event take place twice, or does John just feel like repeating himself?  R. H Charles, in his classic commentary on Revelation suggests John repeats the appearance of the city to let us know this event is important.[19]  G. B. Caird disagrees with Charles, suggesting that the double experience of the descending city is not an accident or mere repetition for the sake of emphasis. The city has not retreated to descend for a second time.  Rather, the duplicity of the event is tied up in the identity of the city itself. 

…the descending from heaven is not a single nor even a double event, but a permanent characteristic of the city.  There is no suggestion that, if John had arrived a little earlier or a little later, he would have missed seeing what he saw.  To the crack of doom Jerusalem can never appear otherwise than coming down out of heave, for it owes its existence to the condescension of God and not to the building of men.[20]          

 

          Perhaps John, while not having access to any of the gospels in their final form, drew on the stories and teachings of Jesus Christ, being familiar with Jesus’ understanding of the “Kingdom of God” as one at hand, and one still to come.  One of the central pieces of the New Jerusalem’s identity is found in the process of its coming. 

Fiorenza locks in on the “Kingdom of God” theme in the Revelation as a whole.  Fiorenza wants the Kingdom of God front and center in our reading of this book.  She would have us read Revelation as being about how God is breaking into human history and how God will continue to do so until his kingdom is fully realized on the Earth.[21]  Interior to this metatheme are three subplots: (1) The establishment of the Kingdom of God on the Earth, (2) Christ in judgment of the world, and (3) Imminent eschatological expectation.[22]  The realization/manifestation of these leads to redemption and liberation for all of creation.

           

          It is not surprising that the city comes down from heaven. There were numerous eastern myths about the gods living in cities in the sky.[23]  The language of coming down from heaven is meant to let us know that this city belongs to God.[24]  In the same line of thought, verse 11 tells us that the city “shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” (21:11) This is meant to indicate to us God’s ownership and connection with the city.  This is also meant to show the city’s purity.[25]  The shining nature of the city is reminiscent of several Old Testament passages: the vision of Ezekiel 43 when the glory of God fills the temple (43:1-5), and the oracle from Isaiah 60:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.   See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light,  and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (1-3) … Then you will look and be radiant,  your heart will throb and swell with joy (5) …  The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. (19)[26] 

 

          Another possible, though somewhat unexplored tradition John is drawing from is Moses’ radiance from Exodus 34, where we are told that after his encounter with God, his face radiated light in such a way that it frightened those around him. (35)  Also the transfiguration of Jesus seems to have been left untouched in the conversation about the radiance of the city. When Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain and encounters God in a cloud, his clothes are made radiant and “His face shone like the sun.” (Mt. 17:2)  Whether or not John of Patmos had access to this Gospel account, it seems evident that the tradition of conceptualizing God’s glory as something that “shines” is well established in the Hebrew Cannon, as well as the early Christian stories.  

John sees and recognizes this shining vision as a city immediately because it has two of the essential attributes of an eastern city—a wall and gates. 

          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. (Rev. 21:12-14)    

 

          The sacred number twelve features prominently in the description of the city. John wants us to notice the numbers and understand that God is at work in the construction of this city.  There were myths in John’s Hellenistic context about idyllic cities, often those of the ancestors.  These traditions believed one day they would progress to the level of their founders (often gods) and rebuild their ancestral idyllic home.[27]  The city we find in Revelation 21 is not built by human hands, nor is it a reclaimed former glory, but it is the revealing of God’s own glory.  God makes good on God’s promise to “make all things new” (21:5) in the giving of the city.  Eugene Boring points out that God fulfills God’s promise perfectly in this passage as God produces a city, the pinnacle of human communal life, rather than some foreign new celestial way of living. God is making “all things new” rather than all new things.[28]  

           

          The Revelator wants us to see not only the walls, gates, and foundation stones, but what is written on them.  The names of the tribes are on the gates, three gates per wall, so that every one of the tribes of Israel has a gate, these gates face out to all sides of the city.  This is a parallel to the prophecy from Ezekiel 48, where we are told of the eschatological city having gates bearing the names of the twelve tribes.  In that passage however, the gates are for the tribes to go out from the city into their allotted territories, whereas here in Revelation these gates are an invitation to the city of God.[29]  Throughout this section, we also find allusions to the eschatological oracles of the prophet Zechariah.[30]  John will draw heavily from Zechariah in the coming verses, but I find it odd that with so much connection to this prophet John will alter one of the major aspects of Zechariah’s prophecy, “Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it.” (Zech 2:4).  Perhaps this is just a bridge to far for John the revelator. Dragons, eagles, plagues, angels, and the recreation of the cosmos are all palatable for John, but a city without a wall is inconceivable.  Or perhaps John just wants it to be as clear as possible to his audience that what he is describing; is a city, and cities have walls.  These walls which house three gates, each representing the reconstituting of the original twelve tribes, sit upon twelve foundation stones which bear “the names of the Apostles of the lamb.” (Rev. 21:14)  The text does not give us any information on how the foundation stones are arranged, yet many scholars have speculated.  Some say they are stacked like pancakes, one on top of the other, others suggest that they are pillars, others, that they each support one section of the wall or that each of them sit underneath a specific gate.  The text does not help us see how the stones are laid, but it does help us know why they are there.  The apostles are the foundation of the new world.   

            The place of the Jews inside of the church (both militant and triumphant) was a hotly contested issue in the early church.  Had God done away with the tribes?  Perhaps God was done with Israel all together, or Israel was only a vessel to bring about the Messiah and now would fade into obscurity.  Jesus chose twelve apostles—had he replaced the tribes?  No, it is clear from this passage—John wants us to see that the two are intertwined.  “John’s [message] is clear, the Christian gospel is integrated with the promises given to Israel and with the work of God in Israel.”[31]  In this new city, Jesus has made all of the promises of God “yes and amen.” (2 cor. 1:20)  R. H. Charles gives us three ways that we can think of this city: he suggests that it is (1) the city of God, (2) the promised paradise and the restoration of Eden, and (3) A restored Jerusalem.[32]  Robert Royalty Jr. pushes back questioning if it is a city, or if we should read it simply as a community[33]  While it is clear that John is talking about a city—it has walls, foundations, and gates—if we read this inside the tradition of allegorical interpretation, “John does not describe a city but rather the ideal Christian Community.”[34]  In this way the passage becomes less about the dimensions and structure of an actual city and transforms the New Jerusalem into a “symbol of the saints.”[35]  As we may look at the text and see idyllic images of the church, with its interdependency of life, communal ethic, and connection to God, the earliest readers would have likely conceptualized what they were reading as a proper/spatial city.  Royalty Jr. gives four reasons for this, the first being that Christianity at this time was an urbanized faith.  Churches were found in cities and spread from one urban community to the other by means of the Roman road system. Second, literarily the New Jerusalem is contrasted with the city of Babylon and should be read as Babylon’s antithesis.  Third, historically Babylon and Jerusalem were real cities, and when John uses their names he evokes their historicity.  Fourth, the way John talks about the New Jerusalem is in line with the Hellenistic characteristics of the idyllic polis, which we discussed earlier.[36]    

           

          With the city being a spatial reality, with walls, foundations, and gates, it is important that the author give us some perspective on what we are seeing. In the next few verses, the angel shows John the scale of the city.

[Then] the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls.  The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal.  He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel's measurement. (Rev. 21:15-17)

 

The measuring of the city (and the temple) is a familiar motif of the Old Testament prophets, as we have encountered it in Zechariah and Ezekiel.  Many scholars have made the connection with Zechariah chapter two, where the prophet writes “Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, there was a man with a measuring line in his hand.  So I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, ‘To measure Jerusalem, to see how wide it is and how long it is,’” (Zech. 2:1-2) though the connection to the Revelation passage is in theme only and there are no proper linguistic clues that the two are directly linked.[37]  There is a stronger connection at work between this passage and Ezekiel’s vision of a restored temple in Ezekiel 40 when the prophet says “He took me there, and I saw a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand.” (Ezk. 40:2)[38]  This connection to Ezekiel is a clue to the reader that this New Jerusalem, which is without a temple, is in a way, its own temple.[39] 

           

          Another cue that this city is itself the temple is its shape.  We are told that the city is a cube, it measures the same height, width, and length.  In this way it resembles the Holy of Holies, “twenty cubits long and twenty cubits wide” (2chro. 3:8).  The symmetry here, as well as in Revelation represents the perfection of God and the completeness of the city; as well as the harmony which would characterize this new creation. 

This great cube is enormous; its measurements equate to 1,380 miles in each direction.  At this size the city would be large enough to cover half of the United States, and stand as tall of as 260 Mount Everests (29,028 feet above sea level).[40]  It should again catch our attention that the author is utilizing sacred numbers, as he continues to integrate the arrival of the New Jerusalem with the activities of God in history: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of the church, and twelve-thousand measurements on each wall.  The church built on the apostles, entered into through Israel, and held together and protected by God—twelve, twelve, and twelve.  This is how we as the readers should interpret the dimensions, as the measurements that John provide us actually make no sense structurally, the size of the city is meant to communicate to us that the city is grand and serves as the new Holy of Holies for the world. 

The city as John describes it is not structurally sound, and as John’s mathematical system does not contain the concept of the number zero, it would be difficult for him to formulate a square.  The length to depth ratio of the walls also fails to give us the substantial foundation for the walls to stand.[41]

           In the same way that a city is the full realization of human life, the city of the New Jerusalem is the fullest realization of life with God.  There in the perfectly formed city, built by God, God has chosen to live with humanity (Rev. 21:3).  In this place, modeled after the Holy of holies, which is adorned with precious stones, reminiscent of the temple priest’s breast plate, everyone now has access to the throne room of God.  The desire of God in Exodus 19 has been realized, as his people have become a “nation of priests.” (Ex. 19:3).  This is the hope that John gives his readers with the vision of the New Jerusalem: the cosmos restored, the city of God with its gates set open, full access to God, and eternal peace with the Church triumphant.  

                    

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[1] Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993, Xvi.

 

[2] Lawrence, J. A New Heaven and A New Earth. New York: American Press, 1960, 158-9.

 

[3] Fiorenza, Elisabeth. The Book of Revelation--justice and Judgment. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1994, 171.

 

[4] Caird, G. B., A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. New York: Harper & Row, 1966, 268.

 

[5] Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation--justice and Judgment, 170-1.

 

[6] Caird, G. B., A Commentary on the Revelation, 269.

 

[7] Ibid., 269-70.

 

[8] Newsom, Carol A. The Women's Bible Commentary. 3rd ed. London: SPCK ;, 2012, 631.

 

[9] Mathewson, David. A New Heaven and a New Earth the Meaning and Function of the Old Testament in Revelation 21.1-22.5. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003, 200.

 

[10] Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989, 216.

 

[11] Royalty, Robert M. The Streets of Heaven: The Ideology of Wealth in the Apocalypse of John. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998, 214.

 

[12] Blevins, James L. Revelation. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984, 112.

 

[13] Caird, G. B., A Commentary on the Revelation, 269-70.

 

[14] Ibid., 270.

[15] Ibid., 100.

 

[16] Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation--justice and Judgment, 107.

 

[17] Ibid., 135.

 

[18] Ibid., 140.

 

[19] Charles, R. H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John: With Introd., Notes, and Indices, Also the Greek Text and English Translation. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920, 161.

 

[20] Caird, G. B., A Commentary on the Revelation, 271.

 

[21] Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation--justice and Judgment, 48.

 

[22] Ibid., 51.

 

[23] Malina, Bruce J. The New Jerusalem in the Revelation of John: The City as Symbol of Life with God. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000, 53.

 

[24] Bratcher, Robert G., and Howard Hatton. A Handbook on the Revelation to John. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993, 303.

 

[25] Gregg, Steve. Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Revised and Updated. ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013, 559.

 

[26] Caird, G. B., A Commentary on the Revelation, 100.

 

[27] Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation, 217.

 

[28] Ibid., 219.

 

[29] [29] Mathewson, David. A New Heaven and a New Earth, 100-1.

 

[30] Jauhiainen, Marko. The Use of Zechariah in Revelation. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005, 6.

 

[31] Gonzalez, Catherine Gunsalus, and Justo L. Gonzalez. Revelation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 136.

 

[32] Charles, R. H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, 160-1.

 

[33] Royalty, Robert M. The Streets of Heaven, 215.

 

[34] Ibid., 215-6.

 

[35] Ibid., 216.

 

[36] Ibid., 216-7.

 

[37] Jauhiainen, Marko. The Use of Zechariah in Revelation, 66-7.

 

[38] Gregg, Steve. Revelation, Four Views, 560.

 

[39] Briggs, Robert A. Jewish Temple Imagery in the Book of Revelation. Vol. 20. New York: P. Lang, 1999, 103.

 

[40] Malina, Bruce J. The New Jerusalem in the Revelation of John, 54.

 

[41] Caird, G. B., A Commentary on the Revelation, 273.

 
 
 

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Jeremy Hall

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