The New Jerusalem
In the previous section, we saw that God created a new heaven and a new earth. The word translated new there means renewed or revitalized, not brand-new. The new creation represents what John Stott calls “the new humanity” — a creation that is no longer in rebellion to God. In other words, it represents the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, both as it now is and as it will be in its future blessedness.
As the apostle John contemplated this, he also saw a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, adored as a bride ready to meet her husband. The new Jerusalem also represents the church. The fact that it comes down from heaven shows that it is God’s work, not man’s. And it is adorned as a bride to accentuate its relationship to the bridegroom, viz., the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the mediator of the new and better covenant.
This morning’s text continues with the new Jerusalem, giving us a very detailed description of the holy city. It is loaded with complex symbolism, which also makes it extremely tedious to analyze. But once we’ve worked out way through it, we’ll also find that it is richly rewarding.
Come and See
The text begins with one of the seven angels who had charge of the seven bowls of God’s wrath coming to John and instructing him to see the bride, the Lamb’s wife (v. 9).
The seven angels were introduced in the first chapter of Revelation as the angels of the seven churches (Rev. 1:20). They were most likely the pastors of the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom Revelation was first written. Each of the seven mini-epistles in chapters 2 and 3 is addressed to the angel of a specific church. These angels were responsible to convey the messages to their congregations. Later in Revelation, we saw the same angels engaging in evangelism, pouring out the bowls of God’s wrath, and introducing John to various visions. Reaching the lost, announcing God’s judgment and explaining God’s revealed will to men are duties assigned specifically to God’s ministers.
There’s a slight hint of this in our present passage. At the end of verse 17, we learn that this angel, having measured the holy city and its walls, measured them according to the measure of a man, and then the text immediately adds that it was also the measure of an angel. The measure of a man and the measure of an angel, at least in this instance, were identical. But the specific wording of the text places the emphasis on the humanness of the measurement.
Otherwise, the wording here parallels an incident found earlier in the same book. In chapter 17 one of the seven angels took John into the desert and commanded him to behold another woman, viz., a great harlot who sat upon many waters. This woman was the vilest of the vile. Her sins included fornication, drunkenness, extravagance and the murder of God’s people. Who was this woman? She represented ancient Rome, the second great persecutor of the church, and for her villainy the Lord afflicted her with torment, sorrow, plagues, mourning and famine, and ultimately she was utterly consumed with fire (Rev. 18:7–8).
But in Revelation 21 one of the seven angels — we’re not told if it was the same angel or not — transported John to a mountain, where he beheld an exceedingly glorious woman. She’s called the bride, the Lamb’s wife in verse 9, and that great city, the holy Jerusalem in verse 10. In other words, the angel invited John to make a closer inspection of the new Jerusalem that descended from heaven in verse 2. This woman is the church of Jesus Christ, i.e., the blessed company of all the faithful in Jesus Christ.
Again, John wrote that this new Jerusalem descends out of heaven from God (v. 10; cf. v. 2) to remind us of its true origin. The church did not begin in the imaginations of sinful men. It came down from heaven. Just as Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2), so it is also he who builds his church and promises that not even the gates of hell can prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). His Word establishes the fact his work in the church will not, and indeed cannot, be undone.
In a minute we’ll consider the details of what John saw as he inspected the church, but before we do so I want to emphasize the importance of having a true appreciation of it. The very existence of a church is an amazing thing in itself, since not even one of its members deserves to be part of it. And it’s not just that God collected a bunch of wretched and miserable sinners and formed them into a body that he calls his own. The greater glory is that he recreates us after the holiness that he desires in us. Listen to what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love (Eph. 1:3–4). This holy status that we have in Christ is so real even in this life that David made it the basis for his prayer for divine preservation in Psalm 86:2. He prayed, Preserve my soul; for I am holy. Our status should also motivate us to reflect that holiness in our lives (I Pet. 1:15–16) by living in thankful obedience to our Lord and Savior.
That Great City
The remainder of our text provides a very lengthy description of the new Jerusalem. This along with Ezekiel’s more extensive portrayal of the latter-day temple in chapters 40 through 48 of his prophecy highlight the extreme care with which Christ builds his church. So, what remains for us is to ascertain how this description applies to the people of God.
Verse 11 says that the new Jerusalem has the glory of God. That is, it reflects the glory of Jesus Christ more completely than anything else in the created world. Verse 23 says, The city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.
Paul gave us an excellent illustration of this in the first chapter of II Thessalonians. There he wrote that Christ will be glorified in his saints at his second coming (v. 10). That wonderful event, of course, is still future, so we can look forward to the day when the church will shine even more brightly. But then he went on to outline his prayer for the Thessalonian believers: he prayed that God would make his calling effectual in their lives in order that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 12). When we fulfill God’s good pleasure and engage in works of faith, as Paul calls them, Christ is glorified in us and we are glorified in him. We beam with Christ’s glory, as the moon reflects the light of the sun. This is a present reality.
To impress upon his readers the brightness of this glory, John compared it to a jasper stone. In the ancient world, many different kinds of stones were called jasper (ἴασπις). Most of these were obscure, if not completely opaque, and they were of various colors. But there was one kind of jasper mentioned by Pliny, which he called “white jasper,” that was as clear as crystal. It was almost diamond-like. So, if you imagine a perfectly clear, flawless and exquisitely cut diamond, with all of its facets dancing wildly in the bright light, this is how John perceived the glory of the church.
John also took note of the city’s wall and its gates.
The wall, he wrote, was great and high (v. 12). The higher the wall, the greater the protection it affords. And considering that this wall protects the church, it makes sense that it would be just as John saw. In fact, the wall may even represent God, who often speaks of himself as the protector and refuge of his people. Speaking of God’s protection of ancient Jerusalem Zechariah 2:5 says, For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her.
The wall surrounding the new Jerusalem had many gates that let people in and out, and these gates and the fact that there were exactly twelve of them is very significant.
On the one hand, the number twelve probably refers to the apostles, who were often called simply the twelve in the New Testament. Matthew mentioned the twelve three times in his gospel (Matt. 26:14, 20,47), Mark nine (Mark 4:10; 6:7; 9:35; 10:32; 11:11; 14:10, 17, 20, 43), Luke five (Luke 8:1; 9:12; 18:31; 22:3, 47) and John three (John 6:67, 71; 20:24). We also find the twelve in Acts 6:2 and I Corinthians 15:5. The twelve were the first ministers of the gospel who opened the door to the church by their preaching of Jesus Christ.
According to verse 14, the wall of the city also had twelve foundations marked with the names of the twelve apostles. It was as if they, being good craftsmen, left their names on their work. The twelve apostles (along with the prophets) were, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:20, the foundation of Christ’s church. Of course, they were not the church’s foundation in the ultimate sense. Only Jesus Christ can serve that role. In another place Paul wrote, For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ (I Cor. 3:11). But the apostles were the church’s foundation in a secondary sense: they preached the message of the one who is the foundation. It was through their ministry that the first New Testament congregations were formed, and upon their writings that the church stands today.
On the other hand, the number twelve also suggests free access to the city for those covered by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. This was an enormous amount of gates by first-century standards. By contrast, modern Jerusalem, whose present walls were constructed in the mid-sixteenth century, has only eight gates.
And not only were there twelve gates, there were also twelve angels guarding the gates. When God expelled Adam from the Garden of Eden after he sinned, he sent cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the tree of life. Here the angels who guard the entrance to the great city — the church — are ministers of the gospel once again. The pastors and elders of Christ’s church open and shut heaven by the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline. The twelve angels in our text may have been the twelve apostles who first preached Christ. It’s also possible that they simply represent the fullness of the church’s preaching ministry. In either case Jesus said, I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19).
Of course, ministers and elders do not have the power to forgive sins on their own. Rather, they declare the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ, which, if a man believes, results in God granting him complete forgiveness of his sins. Theologians sometimes say that church authority is ministerial and declarative. Ministerial means “service oriented” (i.e., satisfying the spiritual needs of God’s people) and declarative means “Word oriented” (i.e., filling spiritual voids with God’s self-revelation in Scripture).
The nature of Christian ministry emphasizes the importance of every believer joyfully and willingly submitting to his elders because, although church authority is ministerial and declarative, to the degree that it is administered in accordance with the Word of God, it will stand in heaven. In another passage that employs a stronger tone yet Jesus said, Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained (John 20:23).
Furthermore, the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel were written on the twelve gates. In the Old Testament, the twelve tribes represented the fullness of God’s people. Here it indicates the full number of God’s elect from all ages and nations. And note also that twelve gates were equally divided among the four points of the compass, thus showing that the elect of God come from all over the world. With Satan bound so that he can no longer deceive the nations, the Spirit of God through the Word of God gathers, defends and preserves for Christ a truly catholic or universal church.
Measuring the City
After John examined the walls, gates and foundation of the new Jerusalem, he observed the angel who first came to him in verse 9 measuring the city. As if it were not clear enough in the preceding verses, here it becomes abundantly clear that these things were never meant to be interpreted literally.
Measuring the city meant that God would protect it. In Revelation 11 an angel commanded John to measure the temple, the altar and those who worship at the temple, but the city itself was left unmeasured. The city did not have God’s protection. For forty-two months it was overrun by the gentiles, and by the end of chapter 11 it was completely destroyed. But here the whole city is measured. That’s because the city has become a temple of sorts. It has the shape of a cube, as did the inner sanctuary of the Jewish temple. But, whereas John used an ordinary reed to measure the temple in chapter 11, here the angel uses a golden reed.
If we were to evaluate the church from the perspective of what of what we can see and hear, we might conclude that the church of the twenty-first century is unequal in its parts. That would be a fair analysis, since the church of our day has both strengths and weaknesses. The church’s strengths and weaknesses vary from age and to age and place to place, but in this world it always has both. But, according to verse 16, the length and the breadth and the height of [the New Jerusalem] are exactly the same. It extends twelve thousand furlongs in every direction. This is the invisible church, which is exactly what God wants it to be.
However, the measurements themselves are rather intriguing. When the text says that the sides measure twelve thousand furlongs, this could mean that each side is twelve thousand furlongs or that all four sides added together come to twelve thousand furlongs. If this is the measurement of each side, then the city is enormous beyond imagination. Each side would be roughly fourteen hundred miles long. The new Jerusalem would cover an area that is fourteen hundred miles from east to west and fourteen hundred miles from north to south, or 1.9 million square miles. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city of Sacramento occupies a mere 99.2 square miles and the city of Los Angeles covers only 498.3 square miles. Thus, the new Jerusalem would be nineteen thousand times the size of Sacramento and thirty-eight hundred times the size of Los Angeles. It would cover more than half of the land mass of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. But even if twelve thousand furlongs is the measurement of the city’s perimeter, the new Jerusalem is still enormous. It would extend 345 miles in each direction, covering approximately one hundred and twenty thousand square miles — far more than any earthly city.
And this doesn’t even take into account that the city is as tall as it is long. Whether 345 miles or fourteen hundred miles, the new Jerusalem would reach well into the earth’s exosphere — far beyond where human life can currently survive without extraordinary assistance.
But the point here is not the size. The city is twelve thousand furlongs. It could just as easily have been twelve thousand feet or twelve thousand miles because it’s the number twelve thousand that’s important. Note the repetition of twelve in our text. It occurs no less than eight times in this chapter alone, and it is expressly connected with both the apostles and the tribes of Israel. It clearly represents the church. Yet, here the number twelve no longer stands alone. Rather it’s multiplied by the number one thousand, an ideal number. In the previous chapter one thousand specified the period of Satan’s imprisonment and the reign of the saints. Thus, twelve thousand represents the ideal church. It’s the church in all of its fullness. It’s a large church, complete, and protected by the sovereign power of God.
And finally, in verse 17 John gives the measurement of the wall that surrounds the city. Earlier John he head said that the wall was great and high (v. 12). But this doesn’t seem to fit the description that we have here. The wall measures a mere 144 cubits or 210 feet. Although this is nearly seven times the average height of the wall surrounding modern Jerusalem, it hardly seems adequate for a city that towers somewhere between 345 and fourteen hundred miles above the ground.
Since verse 17 doesn’t actually say that 144 cubits is the wall’s height, some commentators have surmised that this number is actually the wall’s thickness. But I think a better explanation is to focus again on the number. The number 144 is twelve squared. It’s the church again in its fullness.
Now, what does this text mean?
My view is that the John’s portrayal of the New Jerusalem is an inspired commentary on the last half of Ephesians 5. Paul wrote that even now the Lord Jesus Christ sanctifying and cleansing the church in order that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (vv. 26–27). It’s a picture of what the church is in principle and is becoming in reality.
And if Christ cherishes the church so much that he gives it his utmost attention, making every part exactly what it should be, then we ought to love it no less.
Every one of us can find things to complain about, and some of our complaints may be just, but do we also take time to enjoy the beauty of the church? Does its unity bring forth God’s praise? How about its holiness, catholicity or apostolicity? Are we enamored with the fact this is the bride, the Lamb’s wife?
The church of Jesus Christ deserves our admiration — not because of who we are, but because of who he is. Amen.