Commentary on Revelation 21-22 (New Heaven and New Earth)

After the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20, John sees a new heaven and new earth which replace the old heaven and old earth. John sees the new city of Jerusalem descending from heaven, and he calls it a bride prepared for her husband.

A loud voice (not sure whose voice, but it is not God’s voice) announces the following: 1) God will live with humans in the New Jerusalem, 2) the people living with God will belong to Him, 3) God will ensure that there will be no more suffering among His people, and 4) God will make sure that there will be no more death among His people.

The idea of God dwelling with His people has a long history in the Bible. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, beautifully explains:

In the Old Testament times, God’s dwelling place (skene) first was the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the temple; and his presence was manifested by the shekinah glory. In the coming of Christ, God took up his dwelling temporarily among men (John 1:14 ‘The Word … dwelt among us.’ The same Greek root is used: eskenosen). During the church age, God indwells his church, which is his temple (Eph. 2:22); but this is a dwelling ‘in the Spirit,’ which can be apprehended only by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:17). In the consummation, all this is changed; faith will be changed to sight, and ‘they shall see his face’ (22:4).

This is a reality which we cannot visualize; but direct, unmarred fellowship between God and his people is the goal of all redemption. This is further expressed by the phrase ‘they shall be his people.’ This is an echo of the Old Testament idiom, ‘I shall be their God and they shall be my people,’ which expresses the oft-repeated aim of the divine self-revelation and of all of God’s dealings with his people. All the promises of God’s covenant with men, made first through Abraham, renewed through Moses, and embodied in Christ, are at last brought to full realization.

In verses 5-8, God the Father speaks. He assures John that He is making all of reality new. The entire creation, including human beings, is re-created. John can know that these events will occur because the One speaking is the omniscient, omnipotent ruler of the universe.

God will give to all those who seek to be with Him what they desire. Those who conquer will become fully adopted children of God. To conquer is to remain faithful to Jesus (God) throughout one’s life, regardless of the suffering a person might be forced to endure. Those who are “cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will spend eternity in the lake of fire.

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, comments about verse 8:

The list of sins in this verse is a typical ‘vice code’ (see Reid, DLNT 1190–94) of the type developed by the Stoics and Cynics and found often within Hellenistic Judaism (Philo, Sacr. 15–33; Wis. 14:22–27; 4 Macc. 1:2–4, 22–28; Sib. Or. 2.254–82) and used frequently in the NT (Rom. 1:29–31; Eph. 4:25–32; 5:3–5; Col. 3:5–8; 1 Tim. 1:9–10; James 3:14–16; 1 Pet. 2:1; 4:3, 15). Revelation has three such lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15), the longest of which is here.

The list here is not, however, a general enumeration of sins but instead a specific list that draws together the sins of the book. Its purpose is to sum up the depravity of the unbelievers, and each term reflects sins mentioned elsewhere in the book [of Revelation].

However, the coward merits additional explanation. Osborne writes:

While the rest of the list describes the unchurched and wicked who were the enemies of Christianity, this first term probably describes those in the church who fail to persevere but give in to the pressures of the world. . . . The reader is being asked to make a choice whether to ‘overcome’ the pressure of the world and refuse to succumb to it or to be a ‘coward’ and surrender to sin. Those who do so will join the unbelieving world in eternal damnation.

In verse 9, the same angel who showed John the destruction of the evil city of Babylon will now show John the holy city of New Jerusalem. Babylon is portrayed as a harlot, but Jerusalem is the Bride of the Lamb (Jesus). The next seventeen verses describe the glory of the New Jerusalem.

The first thing John sees is that the city is descending from heaven down to the earth. Heaven and earth are now joined together. Second, the city radiates God’s glory, which John compares to a brilliant jasper (likely a diamond in this case). Third, a high wall surrounds the city on four sides. On each wall are three gates (total of twelve), and twelve angels occupy the twelve gates. The gates have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel written on them. The wall of the city also has twelve foundations, and the names of the twelve apostles of Jesus are on the foundations. Mark Wilson, in Hebrews to Revelation: Volume Four (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), notes that the number twelve is “used repeatedly in chapter 21 to speak of gates (vv. 12, 21), angels and tribes (v. 12), foundations and apostles (v. 14), and pearls (v. 21). Twelve signifies completion and perfection and is the product of the sacred numbers three and four.”

What is the meaning of the walls, gates, angels, foundations, and names written on them? Grant Osborne writes, “The wall is emphasized in 21:18, where we read it is made of jasper, meaning its purpose is not defense but rather radiating the glory of God. It is a ‘great high wall’ because of the size of the city but especially due to the greatness of the glory of God (in keeping with 21:11, ‘It held the glory of God’”).”

Regarding the twelve gates and twelve tribes, Osborne comments:

The idea of twelve gates, three on each side, is taken from Ezek. 48:30–35, where the new temple also has twelve, with three on each side. A major difference is that each gate in Ezekiel is named after a tribe, while here it says simply that ‘the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel were written on the gates.’ The meaning in Ezekiel is that each tribe has a gate that opens to its own tribal territory. Here the thrust is quite different. These gates provide access to all ‘humankind,’ namely, the ‘people’ (21:3) who have ‘overcome’ the world (21:7a) and so ‘inherited’ the city of God (21:7b). The fact of twelve gates means that access is plentiful, and the names of the twelve tribes written on the gates builds on the symbol of the 144,000 in 7:1–8, meaning that the people of God provide access to the ‘people’ of the world so that they might repent and thus gain entrance to the city of God.

The angels could be watchmen standing guard over each gate (see Isaiah 62:6) or they could be linked to the angels of the seven churches and represent God’s new relationship with His people.

The twelve foundations with names of the apostles, according to George Eldon Ladd, are

an obvious allusion to the theology of the church, which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). By this symbolism of the twelve gates bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve foundations bearing the names of the twelve apostles, John indicates that the city encompasses both dispensations, and that both the Israel of the Old Testament and of the church of the New Testament have their place in God’s final establishment.

In verses 15-17, the angel then measures the dimensions of the city. The city is constructed as a cube with each dimension being 12,000 stadia (about 1500 miles), a truly enormous volume. The walls are 144 cubits (216 feet) thick. Osborne notes that the “cube shape matches the shape of the Holy of Holies (20 cubits each direction, 1 Kings 6:20; 2 Chron. 3:8–9). Since the Holy of Holies was the place where the Shekinah resided, this is especially appropriate for the celestial city.”

Are we to understand the New Jerusalem to be literally these dimensions? Doubtful. Osborne explains,

As the 1,600 stadia of 14:20 was the length of Palestine, the 12,000 stadia here was the length of the Roman Empire (from Joppa [in Spain] to the Euphrates). The number is obviously symbolic (like the 12,000 of 7:4–8). It signifies not only perfection but a city large enough to hold all the saints down through the ages, the saints from ‘every tribe, language, people, and nation’ (5:9; 7:9; cf. 21:24, 26).

To emphasize the glory of the city, John writes that the walls are made of jasper (a precious stone), and the city is made of a clear gold (see Isaiah 54:11-12). No such gold is known, so John must be attempting to describe a precious metal that is beyond human experience. Osborne adds, “The splendor of earthly gold is inadequate; it must be transparent so God’s glory can shine through it.”

The foundation of the city contains twelve different precious jewels. The stones listed are like the twelve stones found in the breastplate of the high priest in Exodus 28 and 39. Mark Wilson writes, “The stones represent a city not only of majestic beauty and glory, but also one of great value to be desired by its future residents.”

The twelve gates are made of single pearls and the main street of the city is made of clear gold. Grant Osborne writes, “In short, Revelation builds on a lengthy tradition in depicting the majesty of the celestial city yet transforms these images into a description of the glory the saints will receive on the basis of the presence of God and their priestly status in the eternal city.”

Verse 22 records the fact that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, because God the Father and Jesus are the temple. The glorious light that shines forth from God and His Son means that there is no need for the sun or moon in the sky. Ladd explains:

In reflecting upon the glories of the new Jerusalem, John was overwhelmed by the vision of the presence of God and recalled the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night, but the Lord shall be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory’ (Isa. 60:19). It is doubtful that John intended to give astronomical information about the new world; his purpose is to affirm the unsurpassed splendor which radiates from the presence of God and the Lamb.

Unlike typical cities, the gates of New Jerusalem will never close. All the kings of the earth will be welcome to the city to honor God. But, John reminds us, only those whose names are written in the book of life will enter the city. Evil will never stain the New Heaven and New Earth.

Why does John describe the New Heaven and New Earth as a giant city instead of something more rural? Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes:

Some Jewish pictures of the end emphasized a return to Israel’s pastoral/agricultural beginnings, without ruling out urban existence (Sibylline Oracles 3:744–51), but the New Testament and most contemporary Jewish literature are more urban than most Old Testament depictions of the end (Amos 9:13–15). The symbolic imagery for paradise was adapted to speak most relevantly to the cultures addressed.

In chapter 22, verses 1-5, we see that the New Jerusalem is also the restored Garden of Eden. There is a river of life that flows directly from the throne of God the Father and the Lamb (note it’s a single throne that they share). George Elton Ladd comments:

This is a symbolic way of describing the reign of eternal life in the age to come. The symbolism of a river of life is a common one in biblical thought. The Psalmist wrote of a ‘river whose streams make glad the city of God’ (46:4). Jesus spoke of the living water (John 4:10, 14) which he offered men. Ezekiel’s vision of the new Jerusalem pictured a river of water flowing from under the temple (which was not located in Jerusalem itself), which brought healing and life to the waters of the Dead Sea (Ezek. 47:1–12). Zechariah had a vision of the Kingdom of God in which rivers of water flowed from Jerusalem both eastward and westward (Zech. 14:8). The presence of the river of life in the new Jerusalem is a picturesque way of saying that death with all its baleful accompaniments has been abolished and life reigns supreme.

Beside the river is the tree of life which yields fruit year-round. Ladd writes:

The description of the tree of life follows very closely the language of Ezek. 47:12 . . . The tree is pictured as bearing a different kind of fruit each month. This obviously has no parallel in the human experience of this age. The meaning is that the tree will not pass through the ordinary cycles of budding, blossoming, fruit-setting, and harvest, giving a crop once or twice a year, but will be loaded with fruit every month of the year. This expresses the absolute triumph of life over death.

The curse from Genesis 3:14 is reversed because sin is no more. All of God’s servants will worship Him in the restored Eden, and they will worship Him face-to-face. Ladd reminds us:

This is the hope and the goal of individual salvation throughout the Scriptures: the beatific vision of God. Throughout all redemptive history, God’s presence was mediated to men in different ways. In the Old Testament it was mediated through the prophetic word, theophanies, dreams, angels and the cult. To come face to face with the living God meant death (Exod. 33:20). Jesus in his incarnation brought the presence of God to men in his own person (Matt. 1:23); to see and to know Christ was to see and know the Father (John 14:7, 9; 17:3). This vision of God was still a mediated vision, realized only in faith. In the age to come, faith will give way to sight (Ps. 17:15; Matt. 5:8; 1 John 3:2).

The servants of God will reign with Him forever and ever. Grant Osborne writes:

In [Revelation] 2:26–27 the overcomers are promised the same ‘authority over the nations’ that Christ received from the Father; and in 20:4 and 3:21 Christ promised that they ‘will sit with me on my throne.’ Those promises were partially realized in 20:4 when the victorious saints ‘reigned with Christ a thousand years.’ But here that millennial reign is transformed into an eternal reign. This also fulfills Dan. 7:18 (‘The saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever’) and 27 (‘Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High’). In Luke 22:30 (par. Matt. 19:28), Jesus promised the disciples that they would ‘sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel,’ and in 1 Cor. 6:2 Paul said, ‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’ (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12, ‘If we endure, we will also reign with him’). This sums up a major biblical theme on the future reign of the saints. Of course, this cannot be meant literally, for every saint will rule a kingdom that only the saints inhabit (there is no hint in Scripture that we will reign over the celestial beings; rather, we are their ‘fellow servants,’ 19:10; 22:9). Thus, it probably means we will participate in the rule of Christ over the eternal kingdom and perhaps ‘exercise sovereignty over the new creation in a way similar to how Adam was to rule “over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28)’ (Beale 1999: 1116).