The New Jerusalem
Topic: New Creation Passage: Revelation 21:9–27
One of the greatest achievements in the history of art is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City—you can see it on the screen behind me. Between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo painted these beautiful murals that depict various scenes from Scripture. Imagine walking into the Sistine Chapel and trying to describe the glory you see to someone on the phone. At first you might describe the whole ceiling, summarizing a few specific scenes along the way. But then you’d back up and revisit a scene mentioned before, but now you describe it further.[i]
John does something like that in Revelation 21. Already in 21:2 he mentioned the New Jerusalem. But he did so only in passing as part of a much larger picture. Now, in verses 9-27, John returns to New Jerusalem. But now he explains the city further; and in the details, we discover that New Jerusalem isn’t just glorious architecture. This city is God’s final answer to your deepest longings for peace and joy in God’s presence. As we read God’s word, imagine the beauty of New Jerusalem. But also consider the theological message God speaks through its beauty. Verse 9…
9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 15 And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 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. 17 He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. 18 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Verse 9 begins with words we’ve heard before. In 17:1, an angel with one of the seven bowls says, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute.” We learned how that great prostitute personifies a city called Babylon. The people of that city are not faithful to God. They are adulterous. So, God destroys them. Babylon falls.
But here the angel shows John another woman. He says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” This woman also personifies a city—New Jerusalem in verse 10. But this city represents those who belong to the Lamb.[ii] Unlike Babylon, New Jerusalem isn’t destroyed. She becomes the eternal city where God dwells.
In this way, Revelation presents you with two women personifying two cities. Question is, which city is yours? Which city captivates your heart? God’s Spirit means to persuade you away from Babylon into the glories of New Jerusalem through Jesus Christ.
The New Jerusalem as God’s Plan
Let’s start by looking at the New Jerusalem as God’s plan. It won’t surprise you that John’s vision builds on several Old Testament pictures and promises. One of the pictures relates to the mountain of verse 10: “he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain.” Daniel 2 foretold of a great mountain. Throughout history, rebel kingdoms would rise and fall, each opposing the Lord and his people. But then Daniel sees a stone cut by no human hand. God’s stone shatters these rebel kingdoms; and in their place God raises up the mountain of his Messiah to cover the earth forever.
Isaiah 2 tells the same story. Other proud kingdoms assert their power over God’s kingdom. But Isaiah foresees a day when God would level the opposition and raise his mountain above all others. “The mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains”—Isaiah 2:2. In Revelation 17:9, Babylon sat on seven mountains. But now John sees God’s mountain alone, standing above all.
And it wasn’t just the mountain representing God’s kingdom in the Old Testament. Atop the mountain was Jerusalem (God’s city), and within Jerusalem was the temple (God’s dwelling). So, in other places the promises focus not so much on the mountain, but on God raising up Jerusalem. Zechariah 14:10-11—Jerusalem “would remain aloft” and “dwell in security on the last day.”
And not just the city but a new temple would rise too. In Ezekiel 40-48, the prophet has a vision much like John’s. Ezekiel is shown a new city with a new temple from the top of a mountain. Nine chapters then detail this superior temple. It’s presented in categories of the old covenant—because that’s what the people knew—but it describes a future dwelling that would stretch the imagination of any Jew. The size, the beauty, the provisions, the architecture that ignores basic geography in the land. I mean in one place water comes from God’s presence in the temple to transform the whole barren desert into a new Eden. Ezekiel’s prophecy then ends by even naming city, Yahweh Shamah—“The Lord is there.” His presence fills the city. In other words, part of God’s gracious plan was to create a new city where his dwelling far surpassed anything they’d known before. His presence would transform their whole land and life into Paradise.
Isaiah celebrated that same promise. But in Isaiah 60 we find yet another layer to the Old Testament promises for Jerusalem. God’s presence would also bring the glory of God’s light. God’s light would rise upon his people in the new city—Isaiah 60:1. Nations would be drawn to God’s light and seek to live by God’s light. Even more, listen to this from Isaiah 60:11—“Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations.” Sound familiar? He also says, “The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light…”
So, we have promises of God’s kingdom rising like a high mountain, God’s dwelling unlike anything known before, God’s glory lighting up a new city for all nations. All these promises find their fulfillment in New Jerusalem—in the vision John sees. And all of them answer the desperate longing we feel outside the Garden. It’s no accident that many of these promises come to the people in exile or after their return from exile. They’re seeing the consequences of sin. They’re seeing a city that’s still messed up and not all that impressive. They feel the separation, the darkness, the homelessness, the conflict. Outside of Eden, we still experience the same; we long for things to change. The fellowship lost in the Garden—we want it back! We don’t deserve it.
But then across the pages of Scripture, God has revealed his gracious plan to make things right again. John sees this final city; and when he describes it, it’s even better than the Old Testament shadows.
The New Jerusalem as God’s Place[iii]
Consider, for instance, the New Jerusalem as God’s place. The old Jerusalem served its purpose. God chose to put his name there. As the king followed the Law, the people would witness God’s rule. In this way, the city would be a light for the nations. But the old Jerusalem never lived up to its ideal. Sin warped the people. It warped the city so badly, that when God visited the city in the person of Jesus, the people crucified him. 11:8 even names the old Jerusalem after God’s enemies: “Sodom and Egypt.”
But notice how John describes the new Jerusalem. The new city meets God’s ideal in every way. She is “the holy city” in verse 11. She’s set apart wholly for God. She now reflects God’s own holiness, which heaven celebrated in 4:8. Verse 27 says that “nothing unclean will ever enter the city.” She’s now without sin, totally pure.
New Jerusalem is also an unshakable place. On several occasions in Scripture, nations ransacked Jerusalem’s walls. Not happening with New Jerusalem. The city comes with “a great high wall.” Verse 16 measures the wall at 12,000 stadia—that’s length and width and height, it says. To put that in perspective, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world at just over half a mile high. This city is 1,400 miles high—far beyond any human ability and speaks to the grandeur of the God who makes it.
But more important is the theological message of the 12,000 by 12,000 square. We’ve seen this number before in 7:4; and there 12,000 squared symbolized the fullness of God’s people. The wall is also 144 cubits thick in verse 17—twelve times twelve again. At the visionary level, John sees a city whose walls stretch from here to New York. But the symbolic level pushes us to see more: God’s city houses the fullness of his people. God builds a place suitable for his people to perfection—that’s the point.
It’s also a beautiful place. Verse 18 says “the city was pure gold, clear as glass.” That’s better understood as having a mirror-like reflection. In verse 19, the walls themselves are jasper, and then adorned with every kind of jewel. He lists twelve: jasper, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, amethyst. Nearly every color of the rainbow shining. But we need to see more than mere jewels. To begin, these jewels recall the paradise around Eden. Genesis 2:11-12 mentions gold, bdellium, and onyx. Ezekiel 28:13 lists topaz, jasper, emerald, and several more as being precious stones in the garden of God. This new city reflects paradise.
The jewels also represent God’s faithfulness to keep his word. In Isaiah 54:11-12, God came to his people in their poverty and promised this: “O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones.” These jewels will reflect the love of the one who found us storm-tossed, afflicted, and by grace joined us to what is beautiful.
The New Jerusalem as God’s Presence
On top of that, these jewels reflect God’s presence, and our access to God’s presence. And that’s another big part to this picture. We need to see the New Jerusalem as God’s presence. These same jewels decorated the breastplate of the high priest in Exodus 28:17-20. There were twelve of them, one for each tribe in Israel. They represented the people of God before the presence of God as the priest brought the blood to atone for their sins. But the blood of the true Lamb, Jesus Christ, has accomplished something far greater. The jewels of New Jerusalem decorate the entire city because the entire city has become the place of God’s presence; and the entire people have been made a priestly order who walk with God in his new paradise.
Notice too how John puts it in verse 11. The city comes down “having the glory of God.” It’s no longer the case that God manifests his presence temporarily in a tabernacle or temple. The new city simply has the glory of God permanently. And in saying this we understand the whole city as God’s new and final dwelling place. Verse 11 further says, “its radiance [was] like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” The last time jasper appears is when John sees God’s throne in 4:3—“he who sat [on the throne] had the appearance of jasper.” In other words, the new city shines with the same beauty as God’s throne because God is present throughout. Jeremiah 3:17 anticipated this: Jerusalem—the whole city—shall be called “the throne of the Lord.”
But it gets even better. If we go back to the angel measuring the city in verses 15-1. We already noted the significance of the city lying foursquare, twelve thousand times twelve thousand houses all God’s people. But isn’t it peculiar that John also describes the city as a cube: “its length and width and height are equal,” Verse 16. That’s a strange city scape. Why a cube? It’s a cube because the Holy of Holies—the place where God manifested his presence above the ark of the covenant—that place was also a cube. 1 Kings 6:20, “The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high, and [Solomon] overlaid it with pure gold.” Now John sees an entire city shaped like a cube, and the whole city is pure gold. You putting it together? The entirety of New Jerusalem is now the Holy of Holies. More accurate, the Holy One has made the entire city his most holy place. God’s presence fills and sanctifies everything.
Unlike the old days, where only a few select mediators had access to God’s presence, now everyone has access. We will live in the true Holy of Holies! Verses 22-23 take this idea further: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” This fits the picture of the whole city being the Holy of Holies. The fullness of God’s presence in the city replaces the need for a special place inside. I mentioned before that Isaiah 60:4 anticipates this reality. But what John adds here is how the Lamb is also the temple. Jesus had said before that he himself would replace the temple when he raised his own body from the dead. Now we’re seeing the end goal—to be in the presence of Jesus is to see and experience the fullness of God.
The city also “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” In 1 Timothy 6:16, Paul says that God dwells “in unapproachable light.” The brightest lights you know—sun light, star light—God is his own unique light apart from those lesser, created lights. The New Jerusalem will radiate with his most pure, divine brightness.
The New Jerusalem as God’s People
But it’s at this point that we shouldn’t forget the New Jerusalem as God’s people. To say that the city will radiate with divine brightness is also to say that the people themselves will radiate with God’s brightness. Not because they are the source of God’s light, but because they now reflect God’s light in all they are and do.
Returning to verse 9, we hear the angel say, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” In 19:8, we learned how that Bride symbolized the church, the people of God from every age who placed their faith in Jesus and followed him. John sees this Bride again in verse 9 but then describes her in terms of a city-temple. Paul can call the church God’s temple. And 1 Peter can compare us to living stones that God is turning into a spiritual house. But here we see the church as temple consummated.
As New Jerusalem, God’s people are now complete. Notice again how verse 12 describes the walls and gates and foundations. On the gates, he says, “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed.” In verse 14, there’s twelve foundations for the walls and on them are “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Why the names of twelve tribes and twelve apostles of the Lamb? It captures the fullness of God’s people across both Testaments. The city isn’t just architecture. It’s a people—the saints across the ages who belong to the Lamb. And not just across the ages but across the lands. In verse 13, three gates stand open facing every direction. People have entered God’s city from all over.
They come not to do their own thing but to devote themselves to the Lord in worship. Verse 24: “By its light will the nations walk.” Can you believe it?! The nations will live in ways that are wholly fitting to God’s will. They no longer choose the path of moral darkness. Verse 27 says that “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false.” Talk about a counter-culture! We’re so used to everyone doing what’s right in their own eyes. But the people of New Jerusalem are characterized by total obedience to God’s word. We find them here in their glorified state.
Not only do they walk by the light of God’s glory; they also bring their glory and honor into it. “Glory” and “honor” appear elsewhere in Revelation, and when they do it’s in the context of worship. We’re seeing God’s royal priesthood here. The redeemed nations give glory and honor to the Lord in all that they do.
In New Jerusalem, we see how the world ought to be and how the world will be. That affects the church now. You are to shine as an outpost of this city. Galatians and Hebrews say that in one sense you already belong to it. The world should see in the church the ethic and worship of New Jerusalem. Through the Spirit God already dwells in our midst. You stand as a prophetic pointer to all that this city is about. What an amazing day it will be, when God finishes his work in us!
Maybe you’re asking, though, “How? How’s it possible that people like us—or anyone—could ever enjoy such closeness to the Lord? Given that our sins have made a separation between us and the Lord, how’s it possible that anyone come to live in the true Holy of Holies like this? How is the New Jerusalem populated at all, given our fallen condition in Adam?” Verse 9 has the answer when it identifies these people as “the wife of the Lamb.” Verse 14 has the answer when it associates the foundations of the city with the apostles of the Lamb. Verse 23 has the answer when we see the Lamb as the true Light of the world shining the way. Verse 27 has the answer when it identifies the people as “only those who are written in the book of life of the Lamb.”
The Lamb, the Lamb, the Lamb, the Lamb—over and over. That’s how God populates the New Jerusalem. If you’re part of New Jerusalem, it’s not because of anything you do. It’s because of everything the Lamb does for you. The Lamb, Jesus Christ, wrote your name in his book of life before the foundation of the world. Even before you screwed up, he had a plan in place to save you. The Lamb, Jesus Christ, laid down his life for you, to make you his Bride. His blood cleanses you and adorns you for this great city. The Lamb, Jesus Christ, entrusted his apostles with the gospel message you heard and believed along with countless others who will walk by the light of God’s glory. The Lamb, Jesus Christ, will cause his light to so penetrate your life that you will obey forever and never ever sin again. The Lamb has done it all. That’s how!
Trust in the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Set your hope in the Lamb. All who trust in him will find their home in New Jerusalem.
Don’t Forget the End of Your Story
So, let me ask you again: which city captivates your heart? The message of Revelation presses that question upon us. It’s written to churches like those in chapters 2 and 3. The other city, Babylon—she has her own competing riches and pleasures tempting the church: idolatry, sexual immorality, worldly riches, political power. Babylon still offers you these pleasures today. America is full of them. But the way to overcome the fleeting pleasures is by setting your sights on the superior pleasures of New Jerusalem—especially the pleasure of God himself.
Think about it. God is so glorious that he outshines the sun. His riches are so amazing that he makes the most precious stones look like common building materials. He’s using gold for asphalt and jewels for concrete and pearls for gates. Don’t get me wrong. The point isn’t to diminish their beauty, but to say that even the brightest, costliest things you can imagine are nothing compared to the glory of God. The problem we fight now is being too easily pleased with this world. We gather on Sundays to sing praises together. Yet even in a setting like this, our thoughts of God can be mixed with, “I wonder what they think of my voice? Wonder what she thinks of me? What did those visitors think of us? Oh, someone “Liked” my Facebook post!” So easily pleased.
For the other churches in chapters 2-3, it wasn’t so much Babylon’s pleasures but Babylon’s persecution. You might also recall how 11:1-2 pictured God’s people as an embattled city. We don’t yet experience the peace of New Jerusalem. Rather, the church is being trampled by the nations for a time. In that experience, you start having thoughts like, “Maybe if we just blend in with the culture, we can escape persecution. Maybe if we syncretize Christian teaching with some other worldly teaching, they’ll leave us alone.” We compromise Christ to fit in with the crowd.
But the New Jerusalem spurs us on to resist such temptations. Listen to the way Hebrews applies the New Jerusalem to Christians facing persecution? Hebrews 13:12-14. “Jesus…suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Identify with Jesus outside the camp, with all the disgrace and ridicule and mocking that comes with it. Why would we do this? Because here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come! New Jerusalem—that’s our home. That’s our reward. Every sacrifice in the path of obedience will give way to glory and beauty and joy in God’s presence.
So, whether it’s worldly pleasures or worldly persecution tempting you away from Jesus, let the glories of New Jerusalem persuade you to stay the course. When you’re tempted with pleasures, look to the greater ones in New Jerusalem. When you’re tempted with persecution, remember New Jerusalem as your reward. And then put one foot down in front of the other until the Lord brings you home.
The Lord doesn’t give us this vision in ignorance of your difficult situation. Remember, Jesus walks among the churches. He sees what you are facing, and he knows what you need to see to endure them. You need to see the New Jerusalem. If you belong to the Lamb, this is the end of your story.
Your story doesn’t end with what you did five years ago in that relationship. Your story doesn’t end with a spouse who betrays you. Your story doesn’t end with how you failed your Lord two hours ago. Your story doesn’t end with regrets about that past decision. It doesn’t end with disappointment at work. It doesn’t end with not leading as well as you should have. It doesn’t end with depression or cancer or death.
Those things are part of your story. But if you belong to the Lamb, your story ends with glory and peace and joy in New Jerusalem. Your story ends with life in the true Holy of Holies. Your story ends in a new paradise where there’s not even the inclination to sin. Nothing you do will be mixed with falsehood or hypocrisy—all will be done in pure, devoted worship, because you will see God as he is. The Lamb will shine your path every day and the darkness will be over—every darkness will be over, folks. United to the Lamb, you will be God’s people in God’s place before God’s presence according to God’s plan forever. That’s the end of your story in Christ.
[i] I first heard John’s visionary experience illustrated with the Sistine Chapel in a conversation with Tyrone Benson over Revelation 19 and 20.
[ii] Rev 5:8-9; 7:9, 14; 14:1-4; 19:8.
[iii] These three categories of place, people, and presence appear repeatedly in literature on Revelation. E.g., Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 132-43; Gundry, “The New Jerusalem: People as Place, Not Place for People,” NovT 29.3 (1987): 254-64; Koester, Revelation, 828-29. I’ve utilized them as major headings here and added a fourth, “plan.”