“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
“And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. 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, Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; 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: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. 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. 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. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. 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; 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. 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” (Revelation 21:9-21).
The New Jerusalem descending from Heaven to earth is a glorious vision of the Christian church. But before considering the details of the symbolism, we should reinforce the point that it is symbolism. The city is described as being a perfect cube — with each side being 1200 stadia, which calculated into a modern measurement is about 1500 miles. If this were to be taken as a literal city, if it landed, its base could cover over half of the United States with its eastern base covering Baltimore, and its western base barely missing Denver. Then because the city is as tall as it is wide, it would be sticking 1500 miles up into space, knocking a goodly number of satellites out of the sky. On top of that, in each 1500 miles stretch along the base, there are three gates, 12 in all. Each gate is made out of a single pearl. The gates are enormous, and each one is fashioned from one pearl. If literal, then God apparently has an oceanic planet somewhere with some giant oysters. We are better off looking for the meaning that these symbols bring to us.
One other thing should be mentioned briefly. Many of our popular tropes for Heaven come from this passage (pearly gates, streets of gold), but John is revealing the nature of the Church to us, not the nature of Heaven. This is not a symbol of the afterlife, but rather a symbol for the bride of Christ.
There is a strong juxtaposition between this virgin bride and the great harlot. In both places, John is taken in the Spirit to a particular place to be shown a woman. In both places, an angel prefaces it with come, I will show you. In this vision, John is carried in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, where he is shown the bride. Earlier in Revelation (17:1), he is taken in the Spirit into the wilderness (17:3), to be shown the judgment of the harlot. We are given to understand that both women are beautiful, but one in a pure way and the other in a corrupt and decadent way. The New Zion is beautiful for situation (Ps. 48:2). The angel who shows John this glorious vision was one of the angels who had poured out one of the bowls full of wrath—indicating that God’s purposes of wrath and mercy are ultimately one.
Both are priest’s daughters, but this New Zion is a worthy daughter. The old Jerusalem is burned with fire because she played the whore in her father’s house.
“And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire” (Rev. 17:16).
“And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire” (Lev. 21:9).
The bridal dress for the New Jerusalem is the Shekinah Glory. She is described as “having the glory of God” (v. 11). In a sense, all of church history should be understood as us yearning for that dress, yearning to be adorned with that glory (Rom. 2:7; Rom. 5:2; Rom. 8:18; Col. 1:27, and many others).
Remember that Paul teaches us elsewhere that the Christian church is built on the cornerstone of Christ Jesus, and on the foundation stones of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). We have the same image here in the description of this great city. There are twelve gates, and each gate has the name of one of Israel’s tribes inscribed (v. 12). There are twelve foundation stones, and on them were the names of the twelves apostles (v. 14). There was an angel at each gate, and each angel is associated with a particular tribe. This lends support to the idea that the angel of the churches in the early chapters were human messengers, human “angels.”
“Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: And the Lord hearkened, and heard it, And a book of remembrance was written before him For them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, In that day when I make up my jewels; And I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him” (Mal. 3:16–17).
The city has great walls, walls that are 144 cubits tall. These walls are the walls called Salvation, and they run all the way around the base of this towering skyscraper of a city.
“Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, Wasting nor destruction within thy borders; But thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise” (Isaiah 60:18).
The gates are called Praise, which is the meaning of the name of the tribe of Judah. Judah is the tribe through whom the Christ came, and so we should understand Judah as representing all Israel, which is why John mentions that each tribe is associated with a gate.
The foundation stones that are the apostles are not limestone or granite. They are represented by means of an array of precious stones. We are not told which apostle goes with which precious stone, but there appears to be a meaning in how John arranges it. Predicting the church, the prophet Isaiah says this:
“O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires. And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones” (Isaiah 54:11–12).
Isaiah’s gemstones and those are Revelation vary, but John appears to have a point to the order he presents them. These are the precious stones associated with the signs of the zodiac—but John lists them in reverse order.