The New Jerusalem… the heavenly-city
In the OT, the centre of the world is Jerusalem. It is the centre because it is there God chose to dwell on earth. There he and his human representative, his chosen Davidic King, had their thrones. Indeed in a sense it was one throne (i Kings 2:12). From Jerusalem the reign of God and his messianic (anointed) Son would ultimately reach out and embrace the whole world. The nations in every part of the world would come to worship God in Jerusalem and those who refused would be destroyed.
The many OT references to the future glory of Jerusalem inform and shape John’s vision of the New Jerusalem making it clear that the eschatological city about which OT writers spoke and that OT saints anticipated (Hebs 11) is that which John sees and describes. NT revelation contributes to the picture too.
If Jerusalem was the centre of the world in the OT the repeated reference to its appearance in the new creation and the detailed description of it show it is the focus in the new world.
a heavenly city…
John sees, ‘ the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband... Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”v2, v9)
The city comes from heaven. It is God’s creation. In Isaiah 65, one of the passages from which John draws, we read that God would create a new heavens and a new earth and he would create Jerusalem to be a joy and her people to be a gladness (Isa 65:17-19). We saw in the previous post that the new creation is sourced in God and in his grace; the New Jerusalem is the focus of his special love (Ps 87:1-3).
In Revelation, there are two contrasting cities. Each is introduced to John in the same way. One of the angels who carried the seven bowls of judgement says, ‘Come I will show you’. The career of both is traced in the Bible. Both were real cities which came to represent two conflicting realities.
There is Babylon, the city of man in opposition to God, and the New Jerusalem, the city of God created by grace. Both cities (perhaps we can say cultures) have a destiny. Babylon with its origins in rebellious humanity, built by man for the glory of man (Gen 11:4; Dan 4:30; Isa 14:12-15) is irredeemably corrupt and destined for destruction (Rev 14:8, 17,18; Isa 13:17-22, 14, 21). It is the world to which God’s people do not belong and to which they must not give their hearts… they are called to ‘come out‘ of her (v4).*
The New Jerusalem by contrast has its origins in heaven. Being built by God and not man (Hebs 11) it does not belong to fallen creation but to the new creation. It is the creation of redemptive grace, the place where God dwells and from which his blessings flow (Ps 128:5; Rev 22:1-5) Filled with the glory of God it is a holy city and the eternal home of God and his people (22:5).
… that comes to earth
The city comes to earth (Cf. v16). We should not be surprised. For while it is a heavenly city, it is the city from which God reigns on earth. It is on earth the prophets perceive eschatological Jerusalem. In the New Jerusalem heaven comes to earth. If the first creation began with two in a garden then the new creation is teeming life in a city which is the joy of the whole earth (Ps 48:2).
John sees it descending from heaven. He is on a high mountain but the city comes from higher still (Ezek 40:2). Cities seem often to be built on hills. Their elevation gave them security and status (Ps 125:2). It appears that in Canaanite mythology that the Baal gods dwelt on high mountains – Zaphon in the north (Cf. Ps 48:2). Mountains were often associated with pagan worship (high places). It seems to have been thought that on mountains heaven and earth met. God, however, had chosen but one mountain and city to reside; Jerusalem built on Mount Zion. Historically Mount Zion was not the highest of mountains and Jerusalem was not the most impressive of cities; God chooses the insignificant and in grace destines them for greatness. He promises that one day Jerusalem will be the supreme ‘mountain-city’ built on the highest of mountains with all nations travelling up to her to worship (Isa 2:1-4; Zech 8:1-5). The point is again not ultimately geographical but theological; Jerusalem, the city of God will be exalted. It will have no rivals (Ps 48:2). Indeed it is ‘on this mountain’ he will swallow up death forever and wipe away all tears (Isa 25:7,8, 65:19; Rev 21:4)…. suggests the new creation is filled with the new Jerusalem. Certainly the New Jerusalem is depicted as supremely secure (21:16,17) and where God dwells (21:22, 22:1,3).
We begin by reminding ourselves we are looking at symbols. We easily forget this and when we do we get into difficulties. John has already told us that the city is a bride. So we know that at the most fundamental level people and place are one. The same is true in the OT; Jerusalem is depicted as the bride of the Lord. We are looking it seems at two metaphors that reveal in different ways the eternal relationship between God and his people.
Jerusalem, the bride-city?
the city is a bride
The metaphor of a bride and bridegroom is universal. Marriage was God’s gift in creation intended to point to the special and vibrant love between God and his people… Christ and his church (Cf.. Jer 2:2: Eph 5:32). It reveals particularly that constant unquenchable divine love that shapes soiled sinners into a virginal pure bride (Isa 54:5, 62:5; Hos 11:8,9; Eph 5, 2 Cor 11:2). Human marriage was a gift for intimacy and procreation. In the new creation neither is necessary. Life is eternal and God becomes the source of all that human companionship aspired to be. I doubt if we really grasp how captivating to us our God in Christ will be. Along with the growing love in our hearts the image of a wedding day with its fresh and full love gives us a glimpse. In chapter 19 the bride has ‘made herself’ ready. The betrothed has become a bride. She is clothed in ‘fine linen’ which is symbolic we are told of the righteous deeds of the saints. Her virtues are her glory. Her radiance and purity in fine linen contrasts with the opulent but tainted purple and scarlet of Babylon, the great Prostitute. However, while Ch 19 describes the joy of the marriage feast. Ch 21, focuses more on the people of God as a city.
the bride is a city
Cities were feminine in the OT and so Jerusalem is the bride and wife of the Lord (Isa 54:1-7; 62:1-5; Ezek 16:1,8, 10-13). The glory of the city is also the glory of the bride.
The city is fundamentally a people just as Babylon is fundamentally a people. Yet the image of the city differs from that of a bride. For if the image of a bride is that of the love story between God and his people then the image of a city suggests society and culture. Both Babylon and Jerusalem were OT cities. As cities they were an expression of those who inhabited them. Babylon from the outset as we noted was built in opposition to God for the glory of man (Gen 11). It represents human civilisation in opposition to God, the dwelling place for every kind of demon (18:2). Jerusalem in contrast was the city of God. It is where he chose to dwell and have a house (a temple or divine palace) built as his residence. God’s presence in Jerusalem conferred great privilege and great responsibility. Jerusalem was intended to be an expression of human culture developed under the beneficent reign of God rejoicing in the presence of God.
The reality was somewhat different. Instead of being the holy city and faithful city Jerusalem became as corrupt as the cities of the nations. She became an unrighteous city, a faithless city – a Sodom (Isa 1:10). Her idolatries were such that she became like Babylon, ‘a brazen whore‘ (Ezek 16:30; Isa 1:21). Ultimately, because of her persistent flagrant sin, she becomes the deserted city (Cf Isa 27:10). Firstly she was deserted by God who after many warnings and entreaties left his temple in disgust at her idolatries (Ezek 10:18,19). Finally she was evacuated of her people who were taken as captives to Babylon. People and city alike seem to be forsaken. We can see how the city and nation are indistinguishable and that the city is often employed as a metaphor for the nation.
Yet God is not finished with Jerusalem or his people. Neither is finally abandoned. He had chosen Jerusalem (and Israel) in love and that love would be her salvation. Jerusalem’s abandonment was only temporary. God, the prophets announce, intends to dwell once again dwell among his people in Jerusalem. He will redeem his people. He will renew Jerusalem. Jerusalem will no longer be known as the unrighteous city but as the righteous city. She would be known as the faithful city (Isa 1:26). She would no longer be abandoned and her name would be ‘the Lord is there’ (Ezek 48:35). She would teem with life as never before (Isa 54) and be filled with everlasting joy. The arm of the Lord would accomplish this. He would save Jerusalem and her walls would be called salvation and her gates praise (Isa 60:18, 26:1,2). Never again would she be shaken; she would be a permanent habitation (Isa 32:20).
It is this ultimate redeemed Jerusalem that John is describing. That it is primary a people is further underlined by the foundation of its walls being pillars with the name of the twelve apostles of the lamb (21:14) and its gates carrying the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (21:12).The dimensions of the city squared correspond to the servants of God (7:3,4). The city and its citizens are one.
But who are these citizens? Who are the city?
Clearly, given it’s foundations and gates it is the redeemed people of God both OT and NT. Both lived by faith anticipating a city to come (Hebs 11:10, 16, 13:14). Perhaps the vast number of the redeemed is implied by the (symbolic) dimensions of the city (1500 miles cubed). Here is a city that would not only fill Palestine but apparently the whole Roman Empire. It is salvation’s city. It is the home of all the thirsty from all ages who come to the the eternal God the source of living water (v6 Cf. Isa 54,55). The pilgrimage of both OT and NT believers is to this city, a city, to borrow from an old hymn ‘by faith long since possessed’.
Which brings us back to ‘place’. Yes the new Jerusalem is a people and descriptions of it here and in the OT often are symbolic. And yes the whole concept of Zion is symbolic. Yet I would not want to discount ‘place’. People live and function as a society in a place. The new heavens and new earth are a real place. In the OT the eschatological city appears to be both a people and a place. Believers along with Abraham seek a city which is to come. Geography seems to play a role in theology.
Perhaps we can say in conclusion, that whatever the actual ultimate reality of the eternal city may be John is primarily describing symbolically the redeemed society of God’s people living with their God under his beneficent rule in, it seems likely, a renewed universe.
* Many understand Rome to be the C1 embodiment of Babylon.