Come with me, if you will, on an adventure of biblical imagination in Revelation 21 and 22. The New Jerusalem that is described there by John is mostly taken to be a place in which the people of God dwell with the presence of God—but what would happen if we interpreted everything in the vision as a description not of their place, but of the people themselves? And what then happens if we use that as a way of imagining the destiny of the people of God in the current day?
The reason for asking these questions comes from some writing I have been doing in the last couple of months. I was asked to write a short study booklet (of around 15,000 words) on Revelation, for small groups meeting for six sessions. And for the final session, I was once more reading Rev 21, and was struck forcibly by the opening claim John makes at the start of this vision:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (Rev 21.2).
There is no doubt that this is a personal metaphor for the people of God. It has been used earlier in Revelation to signify the people of God (the ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’) as they experience oppression in the 42 months of their wilderness wanderings between the exaltation of Jesus and his return (‘The gentiles will trample it…’, 11:2). And previous use of the personal metaphor of the people of God as the bride in 19:7–8 identifies the adornment of her fine clothing as ‘the righteous acts of God’s people’, which connects this vision to the earlier, less developed nuptial imagery of 14:4–5. The personal adornment and the jewels of the city are neatly connected by the background text Isa. 61:10, where the the ‘bride adorns herself with jewels’.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Is 61.10)
This kind of nuptial imagery, with the Messiah as bridegroom and the people of God as his bride, is present in the gospels (Matt. 9:15; 25:1–2; Luke 5:34; John 3:29) as well as Paul (2 Cor. 11:2).
But there is another reason why we might press the ‘city’ imagery to be that of a people rather than a place: John also emphasises that the city is the ‘dwelling place’ of God (Rev 21.3), and the fact that the city is a cube, thus looking like an enormous Holy of Holies in the temple, confirms this. But with the (anticipated? recalled?) destruction of the physical temple in Jerusalem in AD70, the NT consistently transfers temple language to the new covenant Israel of God, that is, the Jewish-Gentile followers of Jesus. Thus Jesus declares his own body to be the new temple presence of God in the world in John 2.19 (a claim picked up at his trial in Mark 14.58); Paul develops his metaphor of the followers of Jesus as his body from his Damascus Road encounter (‘Why are you persecuting me?’) so that both the community and individuals within it are God’s temple and his dwelling place (1 Cor 3.16–17, 1 Cor 6.19). In fact, Paul goes so far as to actually draw on the exact OT image that John makes use of in Rev 21:
What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Cor 6.15)
Paul is here making an ethical appeal to the Corinthians, on the basis of the spiritual understanding of the ekklesia as the holy dwelling place of God. But what is fascinating here is that he is drawing on a range of OT texts. Firstly, he is drawing from Lev 26.12, which is the promise looking forward to the settlement of the people in the Promised Land. But then he is also drawing on Jer 32.38 and Ezek 37.27, which are both re-purposing this future promise to look forward to the end of exile and the restoration of God’s kingly rule over his people when they are restored to that land.
And here’s the thing: this is the move that Revelation is constantly making—combining promises of the exodus with promises of the end of exile. This is found most clearly in the use of the equivalent time periods ‘three and a half years’, ’42 months’ and ‘1,260 days’ that we find in chapters 11 and 12. The number 42 corresponds to the desert wanderings, since the total time in the desert is 42 years if you include the sojourn at Kadesh Barnea, and the people stop at 42 places listed in Num 33. But John’s calculation using ‘perfect’ months of 30 days each makes this equivalent to the time of ‘tribulation’ in Daniel 7.25 and 12.7. For John, the followers of Jesus are both in a time of exodus wanderings, heading towards the Promised Land, and in a time of ‘tribulation’ as they await final deliverance, which is first enacted by Jesus’ death and resurrection, but only completed with the descent of the Holy City. And for Paul, these promises are clearly fulfilled in Jesus.
The question then arises: can we read the vision of the Holy City completely in those personal terms, as people rather than place? I checked back in my commentary, and saw that I held back from this. At the start, I comment on verse 2, ‘Different aspects of the report that follows will emphasise both aspects, of the city as the dwelling place of God and the dwelling place of God’s people’ (p 340), and I return to the language of ‘place’ several times in the following pages: the city is the ‘dwelling place of God’s people’ (p 348), its gates are the way that God’s people find their entrance into the city (p 349), and ‘the city is the home of the priestly people of God’ (p 352).
There are good reasons in the text for moving from ‘city as people’ to ‘city as place’. Stephen Pattemore, in his monograph The People of God in the Apocalypse (SNTS Monograph series 128, 2004) notes some of the reasons, principally the nature of the metaphorical language, particularly in the second half of the vision.
R H Gundry ‘The New Jerusalem: People as Place not Place for People’, NovT 29 (1987) pp 254–64, argues that the New Jerusalem represents only the people of God, with no remainder of allusion to a place for them to live. This becomes increasingly difficult to sustain in the later parts of the second vision (21.24–7, 22.1–5). Schüssler Fiorenza…argues that the city is distinguished from the saints. It seems rather that the imagery is fluid, suggesting both identification and distinction (Pattemore, p 200 n 11).
I am not sure I am persuaded by Pattemore’s reticence here. After all, the later parts of the vision he refers to includes the idea that ‘the nations walk by its light’ (Rev 21.24), which corresponds very directly to Jesus’ declaration in Matt 5.14 to his followers that ‘You are the light of the world’. And the river that flows down the centre of the city symbolises (I would argue) the presence of the life-giving water of the Spirit, which elsewhere in Scripture flows in and from believers themselves. And the tree of life provides fruit, and its leaves are for healing; elsewhere in the New Testament, the fruit of the Spirit are personal things found in the people of God, who themselves minister healing in the name of Jesus.
So what does happen when we press this to be a personal vision of the people of God rather than a place?
The city is on a great, high mountain (Rev 21.10): the people of God are visible, like a city on a hill (Matt 5.14), and they draw all sorts of people to them.
‘It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal’ (Rev 21.11). The attractiveness of the people is due only to the presence and glory of God in their midst, and it is this which draws people, rather than any particular quality of its own. Jasper has characterised the appearance of ‘the one on the throne’ in the opening vision of heavenly worship (in Rev 4.3)—so the people of God look stunning and impressive to the extent to which their character reflects the character of God. And they are to have a transparency about them; the idea of being ‘clear as crystal’ suggests that there is no pretence.
The city has ‘great high walls’ (Rev 21.12). If we read this as about people not place, then rather than being contained in a place of safety, the people themselves are a place of safety. The gates are constantly open (Rev 21.25, since gates of a city in the ancient world close at night, and in the New Jerusalem there is no night), so the people of God constantly hold out a welcome to others to join them. But angels guard the gates, and ‘nothing impure will ever enter it’ (Rev 21.27); there is always an open welcome, but this is received by repentance, forgiveness and cleansing that comes through the death of Jesus for us.
‘On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Rev 21.12). The way into the people of God is through understanding the story of God’s dealings with his people all through the history of Scripture, and becoming a part of that story through Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. I find it continually striking that Paul, writing to the very mixed Jewish-Gentile community in Corinth (and probably a good deal more Gentile than Jewish), simply assumes that the story of Israel is now the story of this new Jesus community, and that they should take Israel’s scriptures as their scriptures.
‘There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west’ (Rev 21.13). Where ancient cities had gates usually only on one side, this city can be accessed from every direction. There is no limit to the different ways in which people can join to become part of the people of God.
‘The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ (Rev 21.14). The people of God are themselves built on the foundation of the apostolic testimony about Jesus, which we now have in the Scriptures of the NT, rooted in the OT. That is why, for example, Luke emphasises that the new community attend daily ‘to the apostles’ teaching’ (Acts 2.42).
‘The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass’ (Rev 21.18). The mention of jasper again symbolises the character of God—but the image of gold consistently represents faith, sometimes in the context of being purified through testing, often by persecution (see 1 Cor 3.12, 1 Peter 1.7, and especially Rev 3.18). Gold as pure as glass might then symbolise a people with pure faith and absolute trust in God, perfectly refined by having come through the most severe of tests.
‘The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl’ (Rev 21.22). Within the text, these pearls are a counter-point to the pearls worn by the harlot Babylon (Rev 17.4), and within John’s context this refers to the ostentatious delight taken by the extremely wealthy in pearls, which were valued more highly than diamonds. In the gospels, the ‘pearl of great price’ stands for the kingdom (Matt 13.45–46), though John does not seem to make any connection there. But in wider culture, pearls have symbolised wisdom gained through experience, as a reflection on the way pearls form over time around a piece of grit in the oyster. So here we might have an image of the people of God blessed with unimaginable and incomparable wisdom, born of the experience of being faithful to God in an alien world.
‘The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it’ (Rev 21.24). As I mentioned above, this resonates with Jesus’ teaching to his followers that ‘You are the light of the world’ (Matt 5.14). But John goes further; not only does the wise and illuminating presence of God amongst and in his people shed light on the whole world—his people are even hospitable to the best that the wider world has to offer, the ‘splendour’ of the kings of the earth. In my commentary, I note that this is ‘one of the most important and challenging statements in the whole of the text’.
Taken as a whole, the nations seem to be constantly opposed to God and his people. They trample the holy city (11:2); they are angry with God (11:18); they were seduced by the great prostitute (14:8, 18:3) and deceived by the magical spells of her prosperity (18:23); they are deceived by Satan and make war with the lamb in the final battle (19:15; 20:8). And yet, from the beginning, Jesus is the rightful Lord over them (1:5; 12:5) and shares his authority with his followers (2:26) and God is ‘king of the nations’ (15:3). The same is true of the kings of the earth. They hide from the wrath of the lamb (6:15); they are ruled by the prostitute who is the great city (17:18) and ‘commit adultery’ with her (17:2, 18:3) and also make war on the rider on the white horse (19:19). Yet they too are subject to the rule of Jesus from the beginning (1:5), and the vision of the holy city makes true de facto on the earth what has always been true de jure in the economy of God (p 356).
Finally, if we read the imagery personally rather than architecturally, then the water of life signifying the gift of the Spirit flows not so much through a city as through God’s people, and the fruit of the tree of life grows in them, and it is their ‘foliage’ that provides healing.
I think there is more that could be said, but I hope you get the idea. I didn’t press these things in this way in my commentary—but I feel that it is quite a valuable way to read the text. (And it also goes to show that, however many times you read about a biblical text, and even write about it, there is more to be said!)
But what difference might it make to us now, in practice? Some readers of Rev 21 want to take it in quite a realised way—as a description of the present reality of the church, or at least what the church might be in the present (I think Simon Woodman, in his SCM Core Text, reads it in this way). I don’t find that persuasive, due to the strongly future perspective that these chapters have, in contrast to the earlier parts of the book.
But it does offer us a picture of what we are heading to—so that, even if this will never be fully realised in this age, we at least begin to see signs of this, and it might shape our ambitions for what we are in the process of becoming.
What it might mean is that God is seeking to form us into a people in his likeness, who are transparent in our integrity and have nothing to hide. We become a safe place for others to find refuge. We constantly are open to welcome people in, of every kind, coming from every direction—but at the same time there is nothing evil or unclean to be found in our midst, since the Spirit of God is forming us in holiness and purity. We are shaped by both the story of Israel, which has become our story, and the apostolic testimony to the life and truth of Jesus. Our faith, that is, our complete trust in God, has been purified to perfection by faithfulness in the face of trials and difficulties, so that our trust in God is without flaw. As a community, we are marked by the wisdom of the ages—and we offer a place of hospitality to all that is best in the world around us. People of all faiths and none look to us for wisdom, integrity, and insight.
In one sense, there is nothing new here; all these remarkable ambitions can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures. But John’s direct and striking imagery, doing theology through architecture, gives a new edge to this sparkling vision.
Can we hold this before us, next time we ‘meet together’ on Zoom…?
(You can buy my commentary on the Book of Revelation in the Tyndale series here.)
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