Chapter 21

Introduction

After the final great white throne judgment at the end of chapter 20, Christ’s reign as king on earth is fully established in that everything has been made holy. Sin and corruption are things of the past.  Here in chapter 21, we see a glimpse of the eternal kingdom of God, and it appears to be a whole newly created world, as the old world was destroyed (Rev 20:11).

For me, it is more difficult to form a confident understanding of this chapter of Revelation than has been for the earlier chapters. It would not surprise me at all if the descriptions of this new world are mostly figurative or allegorical, simply because this new world is beyond our comprehension. Even so, if the main intent of these descriptions is to fill our minds with wonder, and to inform us that this world will have unimaginable beauty and splendor, I believe it succeeds at that.

Commentary

New Heaven, New Earth, and New Jerusalem

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

v1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away – As described in Isa 65:17, Rev 20:11 and 2 Pet 3:12, all old things are gone.

v1 and there is no longer any sea – This is a curious addition, and there are multiple ideas concerning its meaning. There are two that I find most credible:

  • If taken literally to mean that there will be no sea on the new earth, it may refer to unity among people in the new earth. In today’s world, it’s possible that one of the purposes of the seas (the oceans) is to thwart unity among prideful people. Breaking their unity was the same purpose that God had in mind when he scattered the people at Babel (see Genesis 11). On the contrary, God sought unity among His own people — first the Jews (2 Chron 30:12, Ps 133:1), and then the Church (1 Cor 12:12, Eph 4:3).
  • Perhaps more likely, the “sea” should be understood in the same way we’ve seen it used previously in Revelation. Most recently, “sea” was used in Rev 20:13 to refer to a place of the dead. Earlier, in Rev 13:1, “sea” referred to a prison for demons, also called the “abyss” (Rev 11:7). Therefore, this verse may be saying that this new world has: (1) no place for the dead, or (2) no place for demons, and surely both statements would be true at this point in time.

v2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband – The old Jerusalem has often been used to represent the promise of God’s kingdom on earth. That’s because David’s throne was there, and Christ the eternal king inherits David’s throne. This new Jerusalem represents the reality of God’s kingdom on earth. Currently this new Jerusalem is in heaven (Heb 12:22), but it is promised to come down to earth with the saints (Rev 3:12).

Immediately prior to the creation of the new earth, the redeemed people, represented by the Bride, had been in heaven (as seen in chapters 19 and 20). Now, they shall be on the new earth, having come down from heaven with the new Jerusalem. God and Christ shall reside there with them, as seen in the next verse.

3And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; 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.” 5And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”

v3 Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them — We see that there will be a new and open relationship with God. All sense of separation which had been caused by sin is gone (1 Cor 13:12). The new world is like it was in the Garden of Eden before the fall, when Adam and Eve walked and spoke and lived with God.

There shall never again be reason for sorrow, death, or pain in the new world. There shall be eternal joy, eternal life, and eternal peace.

The Great Promise Declared Finished

6Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7“He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

The narration of the vision is paused for the above message, which is a summary of the things we have seen in chapters 20 and 21. The phrase “it is done” informs us that these things have resulted in the completion of some great work of God, and that great work is the fulfillment of the Great Promise. Christ Reigns forever and sin has been forever abolished. The redeemed are counted as fellow heirs with Christ, as sons and daughters, adopted and loved by God (Rom 8:17,23).

The message also contains a warning concerning the unredeemed. They will see none of these glorious things, because they are with Satan in the Lake of fire, experiencing what is called here and in Rev 20:6, the “second death”.

The Presentation of the Bride

9Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

As explained in the The Great Harlot and Babylon (in a section called “The Harlot vs. the Bride”) , the presentation of this bride in chapter 21 closely mirrors the presentation of her opposing counterpart, the harlot of chapter 17. The bride represents the redeemed people who shall be eternally joined with God, while the harlot represents the rebellious people who shall be eternally joined with Satan.

Descriptions of the New Jerusalem

10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, 11having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper. 12It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. 13There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. 14And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Thus begins the descriptions of this new earth and new Jerusalem. It has all the glory, splendor, majesty, wealth, and brilliance as the throne in heaven that was described in chapter 4.

Twelve gates; Twelve foundation stones – These carry the names of the twelve sons of Israel, and the twelve apostles of Christ, respectively. I believe that these uniquely special people, combined, are the twenty-four elders that we’ve seen several times within Revelation (see Who are the Twenty-Four Elders?).

15The one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall. 16The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards, according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements.

v16-17 16The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal 17And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards

Again, there are different ideas about how to understand this:

  • Some interpret this literally, and believe the future kingdom will be an enormous cube, about 1,500 miles on each side. For perspective, one corner of that cube could be placed in Los Angeles CA, another in Minneapolis MN, another in Miami FL, and the other near Ixtapa, Mexico. Due to its height, about 95% of this cube would be in outer space. It’s volume would be about two-thirds that of the moon. It also has a wall about 72 yards thick. Some theologians have attempted to estimate the number and size of the “apartments” in this structure.
  • Others (myself included) prefer a figurative understanding here. God’s presence on earth has been symbolized most prominently by the Holy of Holies within the temple in Jerusalem. We know from 1 Kings 6:20 that the Holy of Holies was shaped like a cube (about 30 feet high, wide, and deep), and so the cubic shape of this kingdom given in verse 15 is likely to be symbolic of God’s presence in this kingdom, re-emphasizing the point made above in verse 3. Also in this verse, it’s unfortunate that English translators converted the dimensions into English units, because it masks the significance of the number that John wrote. The actual dimension is expressed as “12,000 stadia”, not “fifteen hundred miles”. Throughout this chapter, we see the number twelve (or multiples of twelve) being used frequently, which itself implies that there is a symbolic meaning associated with the number twelve (discussed below).

18The material of the wall was jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation stone was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; 20the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprase; the eleventh, jacinth; the twelfth, amethyst. 21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

These descriptions explain, perhaps as best as possible within the severe limitations of worldly terminology, the absolute grandeur and limitless wealth associated with the kingdom of God.

There are some interesting observations about these stones:

  • The High Priests of Israel wore a breastplate that had four rows of gemstones, with three gemstones in each row, which is a total of twelve gemstones. The names of those gemstones worn by the priests are listed in Exodus 28. If we compare that list of stones in Exodus 28 to the stones seen here in Revelation 21, we see that ten of twelve stones match exactly, and the two mismatches are likely just differences between the ancient Hebrew and Greek names for these stones. In other words, it appears that this is the same list of gemstones as those worn by the High Priests of Israel. That these lists of gemstones match implies some connection between this new Jerusalem (the kingdom of God and His redeemed people) and the priesthood.
  • The twelve stones on the priest’s breastplate corresponded with the twelve sons of Israel (Ex 28:21). Here in the new Jerusalem, the twelve stones correspond to the twelve “foundation stones“. In verse 14, we saw that those twelve foundations stones corresponded not with sons of Israel, but with the twelve Apostles of the Lamb. In summary, the sons of Israel correspond to the breastplate stones, which correspond to the foundation stones, which correspond to the Apostles. Thus, a connection is made between the twelve sons of Israel and the twelve Apostles of the Lamb. Both of these groups have constituted the elders of God’s people upon the earth, first Israel, and then the church. Combined, they are likely the 24 Elders.

What might we conclude? In the future kingdom represented by this new Jerusalem, the redeemed shall all reign with Christ and they shall all be like priests having intimate access to God (much more than the Old Testament priests had). The redeemed shall like Christ himself in this regard, as He is identified in scripture as both a king and a priest (Psalm 110:2,4, Zech 6:13, Rev 19:16, Heb 9:11). The redeemed will composed of the faithful among both Israel and the Gentiles, finally united (Acts 15:16,17,18).

22I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; 26and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; 27and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

v22 I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple – This makes perfect sense. On the old earth, the temple was a symbol of God’s presence among His people, and it was accessible only to the priests. But on the new earth, there is no point in having a symbol of God’s presence when God is fully present in reality. Also, there is no point in having a place limited only to priests, because everyone is a priest!

Verses 23-26 seem to be echoing Isaiah’s description of the eternal kingdom of God:

  • Isa 60:19,20,21 19“No longer will you have the sun for light by day, Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the LORD for an everlasting light, And your God for your glory. 20“Your sun will no longer set, Nor will your moon wane; For you will have the LORD for an everlasting light, And the days of your mourning will be over21“Then all your people will be righteous; They will possess the land forever, The branch of My planting, The work of My hands, That I may be glorified.
  • Isa 60:3 “Nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising.
  • Isa 60:11 Your gates will be open continually; They will not be closed day or night, So that men may bring to you the wealth of the nations, With their kings led in procession.

One may wonder how “the kings of the earth will bring their glory” into this final kingdom, as mentioned in verse 24. What glory can earthly kings possess? Remember though, that this final kingdom follows shortly after the millennial kingdom. It is possible that there shall be truly righteous kings coming forth from the aftermath of millennial kingdom, and their glory shall be carried forward.

v27 and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life – Perhaps echoing Isa 60:12 “For the nation and the kingdom which will not serve you will perish, And the nations will be utterly ruined“. This makes it clear that the new world is and shall forever remain undefiled.

About the Number Twelve

This chapter has mentioned twelve gates, twelve angels, twelve tribes of Israel (verse 12), twelve foundations, twelve apostles (verse 14), twelve precious stones, and twelve pearls (verse 21). The dimensions of the city (length, width, and height) are each given as twelve thousand stadia. Early in the next chapter, we will also see twelve crops of fruit (Rev 22:2).

All of these references to the number twelve cannot be coincidental. In fact, the number twelve is a prominent number throughout the Bible. Like the number seven, it too carries a meaning beyond just the number itself. The symbolic meaning associated with the number twelve may be inferred by reviewing the instances in which it is used. Some of these instances are listed below:

  • Gen 17:20 – Abraham’s son, Ishmael, is promised to be the father of twelve rulers.
  • Gen 35:22 – Jacob had twelve sons (from which come the twelve tribes of Israel). There are many instances of the number twelve that are related to these tribes, including the different utensils in the temple (Num 7:84-87), staffs (Num 17:2), animals (Num 29:17), the garments worn by the priests (Ex 28:15-21), and even the twelve stars on the head of the figurative woman in Rev 12:1.
  • Matt 10:1 – Jesus chose twelve disciples, who became (replacing Judas with Paul), the twelve apostles. There are other references to twelve related to them (such as the twelve baskets of bread and fish).
  • For marking time, there are twelve months in a year (1 Kings 4:7, Rev 22:2), twelve hours in a day, and twelve hours in the night (John 11:9).

In these cases, we see that the number twelve is associated with God’s design for governing, or granting His authority to people.

Some commentators point out that there is a mathematical connection between the symbolic numbers seven and twelve. Specifically, that 7 = 3+4 while 12 = 3×4. It seems then that while the number seven is associated with the perfection of the purposes of God, the number twelve is associated with the perfection of the purposes of mankind, as stated by God. His people Israel began with twelve tribes. His people the Church began with twelve apostles.

This may explain why the number twelve is so strongly connected with this new Jerusalem: It represents the kingdom of God which is full of God’s people, and they are in perfect harmony with His government.

What Will Eternal Life Be Like?

This chapter describes a glorious place. And yet, with our finite and flawed human perspective, it is probably beyond our comprehension. In fact, the idea of living anywhere for a thousand years, or a million years(!), is hard to imagine. We might even think that eventually, being alive will become boring! How then can we comprehend eternal life?

On the other hand, we know that holy angels have been around for a long, long time, and wherever scripture mentions them, they don’t seem bored. They seem fascinated by the things that God is doing.

  • 1 Pet 1:12 — Peter described the good news revealed in the gospel as “things into which angels long to look.
  • Eph 3:8-10 — Paul says 8To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; 10so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places
  • In addition, we see that angels are often celebrating. Every time a sinner is saved (Luke 15:10), and at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:13-14) and at his second coming (Rev 19:1-3).
  • They guard over people (Matt 18:10, Acts 12:15) in addition to having a role in other affairs on earth.

So, even though this new kingdom is eternal, remember that God is infinite: He could reveal astonishing new wonders every day forever, so don’t expect boredom.

There are other Old Testament passages (e.g. Isa 25:6-9, Isa 65:17-25) that describe the kingdom of God. One in particular is Isaiah 11:6-9 which is Hebrew poetry and probably not intended to be taken literally, but it conveys the idea of a place where there is no violence and no danger: 6The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. 9They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

The following verses tell us about our eternal bodies:

  • Phil 3:20-21 – 20But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
  • 1 Cor 15:42-44 – 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
  • Matt 22:30 – For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

These passages suggest that our eternal bodies may be like the glorious body of Christ (perhaps the same sort of body Christ had after his resurrection). It is described as a spiritual body, which might make us think of it as invisible or wispy, but Christ could be seen and touched and do all the things a physical body could do and more. However, there will be no marriage and perhaps no reproduction. Reproduction is needed only when there is death, but in the new world, there is no death.

One more verse that probably says it the best:

1 Cor 2:9 – However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him

I take this as confirmation of the idea that this eternal kingdom beyond our comprehension, and that the descriptions in this chapter are probably more figurative than literal. Perhaps the person who had the best understanding was the apostle Paul, who wrote the following:

2 Cor 12:1-7 1Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. 6For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. 7Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!

Paul was given a vision of heavenly things that were so inexpressibly great, that God knew it would tend to make him prideful for having received it. To prevent this, he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him grounded! One day, these inexpressibly great things will known to all who are redeemed.

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