Beyond the Lectionary Text: Revelation 21:1-27
by Chelsey Harmon
I live in “Beautiful British Columbia” (it’s on the license plates)—Vancouver Island, to be specific. The “city” is a boat or plane trip away across the Georgia Strait; people here want the open water, the tall trees and the sturdy mountains. So the first time our church community read Revelation 21 together on a Sunday morning, the overwhelming after church comment was: “Heaven is not a city.”
It was a lesson in context, both the context of the congregation, and the biblical context.
Good commentaries will point out that the original audience were city dwellers. From those in the seven cities listed in the first portion of Revelation, to the Jews in diaspora longing for the Jerusalem of yesteryear, those trying to make sense of God’s future promises as described by John were people who depended on a city for their way of life and sense of well-being and purpose. Richard Bauckham argues that they probably weren’t that different than the modern urbanites who can’t imagine living anywhere else: “Most citizens of great cities of the province of Asia would have thought it possible to be fully human only in the public life of a city.” (emphasis added; from The Theology of the Book of Revelation)
And yet, life in the city had become much less sweet. Most of the early Gentile Christians and converted Jews were dealing with disappointment in city living because of their newfound faith. For those of Jewish descent, the loss of the city of Jerusalem in AD 70 still stung; Jerusalem was God’s city, and it had been destroyed; that’s not really a confidence booster. Nor did those of non-Jewish descent who converted to Christianity find it an easy transition: ostracism in friendships and business, religious persecution for choosing to no longer participate in pagan rituals, a new code of ethics that made it very clear they were different than their neighbours… The city was losing its stability for Christians.
So when John says the city, the symbolic New Jerusalem, comes down from heaven—from God!—what hope and relief the people must have felt! They may no longer feel at home within the Roman city walls that towered above them, but in God’s city, the promise is not only to feel like you belong, but to have God dwell with you, to actually be at home and to belong fully. And to top it off, all of the kinds of people who caused the grief and pain and ostracism, and all the things that stain this world—people who have rejected the faith and made sin a way of life for themselves and for others—are not be part of this city of God. (vv 1-8) Knowing their struggles, the New Jerusalem was something to look forward to and would truly be a sight for sore eyes.
How John describes the city is important. First, the city is beautiful because it has the glory of God. Unlike our human endeavours to mark our cities with great engineering and architectural feats, the new heaven and new earth is given its beauty and glory by God, not human ingenuity. Even the fact that the beauty comes from the natural stones God has made points us away from ourselves and towards God as the designer.
Second, walls make cities safe and secure, keeping the enemy out and those who belong inside protected. The city gates and walls of the new Jerusalem are built of the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s covenant people from the beginning, symbolizing that this is not a new thing, but a continuation, completion, and renewal of a very old, familiar thing. Surprising for a city, however, is that each wall has three persistently open gates in it, opening the city to the north, south, east, and west, welcoming all of those who have been drawn by Jesus to himself (John 12.32). The vision of the walls and gates of the holy city symbolizes that the city of God is not closed or limited to one people group, but is made up of people from all the nations of the world who have been called to sit at the wedding feast of the Lamb. The open gates symbolize that the city from God is so secure that there is nothing for its inhabitants to fear. The apostles are the names of those who have spread the good news of Jesus, spreading the invitation to the wedding so to speak, so it is only fitting that their names serve as the foundation of the walls that symbolically represent all of God’s people coming together in harmony and shalom.
Third, the city is described as a cube, measuring 12,000 stadia by 12,000 stadia by 12,000 stadia. Remembering that numbers in Revelation are highly symbolic, it is wise to resist the urge to translate the measurements into modern numbers. Twelve symbolizes the tribes of Israel (God’s people) and one thousand symbolizes the idea of divine completeness. So the city is the size that represents the divinely complete people of God; it fits all who God means to be within it.
In his commentary on Revelation, Darrell Johnson also posits that the cube shape of the city ought to recall for us another cube shaped space that “held” the presence of God: the holy of holies in the temple. In fact, there is no temple in the new Jerusalem because the whole place is the holy of holies, completing the act begun when the curtain that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two at the moment of Lamb’s death on the cross. Again, we’re meant to sense that this isn’t a new thing that God is doing, but a continuation and culmination of his covenant keeping.
Fourth, the walls are 144 cubits thick, 12 x 12. That means that the walls are protected and secure beyond belief. No one or thing is going to get into the city and threaten the people within. John has already listed the kind of people who have made sin a way of life (something he talks quite a bit about in 1-3 John, but he emphasizes the safety of the city of God by listing again those who will not be part of this beautiful place because they are not written in Jesus’ book of life as seen by their lifestyle, values, and the way they hurt others.
Fifth, kings and people are described as bringing into the city the glory and the honour of the nations. Kings represented their entire culture and were powerful culture shapers, of industry, art, education, even their people’s understanding of family. The glory of the inhabitants who enter the city of God comes from God just as the beautiful glory of the city comes from God. Meaning, we bring with us the good that God has done in us and will continue to have the opportunity to live out our vocation as good culture creators, but without the effects of sin. Though the city is not of our doing, we are invited to a meaningful existence and sense of purpose in that holy place and aren’t going to be twiddling our thumbs on the new earth.
Though the city of Jerusalem held a high place for people of faith, cities themselves do not fare so well in biblical imagery. In particular, the city of Babylon is described in Revelation in great detail and in less than favourable terms; in fact, Babylon was contra in every way imaginable to the picture of the new Jerusalem. Like the cities of Scripture before it, the Babylon of Revelation was a place of arrogance, violence and disobedience because earthly cities are human places, designed by a fallen humanity’s attempt to shape and control its culture. The city of God, however, comes down from God, it is filled with God’s presence and it was not made by human hands. John goes looking through the streets trying to figure out where the glorious light is shining from only to find that the Lamb is the lamp, fulfilling God’s oft repeated description as “light” in Scripture. Only after realizing and living within God’s design do we have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the place.
The Decapolis city of Jerash still has its ceremonial gates standing. The city itself did not have walls because the Roman empire was so secure that the city was never under any threats. The arched gates were built because gates were pivotal locations for many aspects of city culture (business, government, and religion). Though they seem opposite, the gates of the new Jerusalem serve the same purposes and as the same symbolic message that the gates of Jerash represent.
The image of a cube city coming down from heaven to earth to bring about an irreversible change always brings to my mind a Borg cube ship coming to earth and broadcasting in unison voice, “We are the Borg, prepare to be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” If you know Star Trek, then you know that the Borg were the most dangerous opponents Starfleet faced because they took over the culture and people of the planets they came upon, taking away the individuality of each of the alien cultures, making them part of the one collective hive while simultaneously taking in all of the knowledge and skills (and thereby adding to their arsenal of knowledge and power) of the people they assimilated. When God’s cube city comes down, resistance will also be futile, but we will not be assimilated or lose our positive (holy and image-bearing) contributions to culture, nor will we lose our individualness and ability to contribute. Resistance, however, will be utterly futile as all opposition to God is swallowed up into the sea or lake of fire.
For Further Reflection on Revelation 21.1-6 be sure to read the sermon starter in the lectionary section of this site.
Chelsey Harmon is the pastor of Christ Community CRC, Nanaimo, BC.