Studying Revelation 21 10-21

We are studying the next installment in our four-week consideration of the last two chapters of the book of Revelation: Revelation 21:10-21, the description of the new Jerusalem. [We’ll probably want to read on, to the end of the chapter, to get the full picture.] Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: As we’ve already noted about the book of Revelation,

  • it seems to have been written in the late first century CE;
  • it is addressed to the “seven churches in Asia,” that is, what we today think of as Asia Minor or Turkey;
  • its self-identified author is “John,” but there’s more than one candidate for which early Christian “John” that is;
  • it belongs to the literary genre of apocalyptic prophesy, and some of its features, including cryptic symbols that need to be explained to the author by celestial guides, numerology and other pregnant symbols, are standard features of its genre;
  • recent scholars think its purpose may have been to encourage the members of those early churches to remain faithful in their Christian living – to resist the tempting ease of the pagan world around them.

In seminary, we learned that a key feature that distinguishes apocalyptic from prophetic literature is how much of the present world needs to be destroyed to restore blessed order. Prophetic literature warns of impending punishment for those who are doing evil and wrong, but reform and restoration is going to be possible. “The Peaceable Kingdom” happens in this world. Apocalyptic despairs of the reform of this world; it has to be destroyed and replaced with something better. That guideline seems to work in broad brushstrokes, at any rate.

I learned from our curriculum[1] this week the significance of the square!! The Holy of Holies, both in the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and in the Temple in Jerusalem, is a square space. Actually, a cube. [The texts are Exodus 26:31-35, where “seeing” that we’re talking about a square depends on how we read “four pillars” – ahem, we learn new things everyday – and 1 Kings 6:20, where there’s no excuse for not having noticed this before. Still, it’s easier to see in a picture, like this one for the Tabernacle or this one for Solomon’s Temple.

So: it’s like the Kaaba in Mecca!! (Just sayin’.)

This holiest shape, then, informs the significance of Ezekiel’s fixation on measurements in his vision of the Temple in Ezekiel 40-42 (a nice picture and “tour” here). Ezekiel’s new temple is one giant square – a holier temple than ever before – with an inner most holy square. Revelation takes a lot of instruction from Ezekiel. The holiest shape also informs the significance of John’s vision of the squared and cubed new Jerusalem, where all of life now takes place within an expanded holy of holies.

Our curriculum also had the clearest explanation of the numerology of 7 and 12 I’ve run across before. In gist, it’s this: setting aside 1 and 2, which have their own profound significance, and setting aside only for the moment the fact that 7 is the perfect number of creation (6 days of work, plus one day of divine rest, so, 7 is the sabbath number), there are a couple of other primally significant numbers. Three (3) is a primally significant number, just about universally-humanly: “all good things are three,” including the archetypal nuclear family, the Sphinx’s stages of man, the Biblical patriarchs, the Christian Holy Family, and the persons of the Trinity. Four (4) is a primally significant number: four quarters of the year, four directions, four winds, four seasons, four sides of a square (!), etc. Well: three plus four is seven. And three times four is twelve. So sevens, twelves, and their multiples (like their squares, and multiples thereof – e.g., 144,000) are extra-perfect numbers. Sets of seven and twelve feel good, and complete. These numbers roll through the Bible, gathering additional significant associations as they go. This may be all the commentary we’ll ever really need on this sacred numerology.

There’s a lot to know about precious and semi-precious gems, too, to get a mental picture of the description of the foundations, and the gates. One problem, however, is that names vary. The foundations of the new Jerusalem seem to be modeled on the high priest’s breastplate described in Exodus 28, but the lists of gemstones are not identical, either in English or in Greek (that is, if we compare the Greek gem names in the Septuagint with the Greek gem names in Revelation). It’s not clear that the differences are meaningful. [At least, not with the amount of wading through the available sources on the esoteric meaning of gems and their various mystical properties that I’m willing to do. Which is, honestly, none.] They may not even be meant to be there.

There is plenty of detailed analysis and lots of images available on the internet, ranging from the geological kind to the biblical kind to the woo kind. A comprehensive example of the Biblical kind is Gemstones in the Bible! here. Individual gemstone entries usually include a good picture, and some traditional lore. The easiest single source I found, with decent pictures, some commentary, and biblical references, is this “Stones of the Bible” gallery here. RocknGem has a really nice analysis of the gems in the breastplate, with some discussion of translation issues into current terminology, and very nice pictures here; unfortunately for us, they don’t seem to have gotten as far as the New Testament yet.

Verse 10 of our text is in the lectionary. It’s included, for the purposes of introduction, with the last verses of Revelation 21 as one of the readings for the Sixth Sunday after Easter (C). The rest of the verses never show up. That makes the architectural description of the New Jerusalem, which literally explains why “the pearly gates” and “those golden streets” are in our vernacular, something we won’t know about the Bible if all we know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.

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CLOSER READING: If we started with v9 – which would seem to make sense – the author-visionary is invited to take a closer look at the new Jerusalem by one of the 7 angels who recently poured out a bowl of plagues onto the [old] earth. The invitation is to see “the bride the wife of the Lamb”. We think, then, this is an identification of the church – who/which we know is the Bride of Christ – with the new Jerusalem.

In v10, the holy city Jerusalem – which we saw last week in v2 – is descending from God. Last week, we learned in a general way that the holy bridal city is “adorned”. This week, we see the adornment in detail.

[Personal aside: Our daughter is getting married in November. This image of “adorned as a bride” has taken on new, concrete meaning for me. When else does anyone ever go all out like this?]

God seems to be playing the role of the father of the bride here. We probably need to have Genesis 2, and in particular Genesis 2:18-22, in mind here as well. As the Lamb is also the new Adam, the new Jerusalem is the new Eve.

In v11, jasper is usually red, but not usually clear, so this is an unusual description. On the whole, all the descriptions emphasize the brilliance and clarity of the city, even in materials that we don’t normally think of as clear, like gold.

In v12, we might want to think about the significance of the wall. It is presumably not exactly functional – not military, not defensive. The 12 gates made of giant pearls are going to be open at all times. There is an “outside” to the city, however, so the wall does seem to separate holy from unholy, still.

More precisely, however, if we think about the way the wall is described – jasper, precious stones, pearls – it sounds more like a necklace than a wall. (So maybe see Song of Songs 1:10-11, or Song of Songs 4:9.)

The description of the gates, their perfectly symmetrical character, and the measurements taken by the angel in verses 15-17 echo Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple in Ezekiel 40-42. This angel’s humble measuring tool is more glorious, as befits the new Jerusalem. The measurements themselves are multiples of twelve (see above).

Thinking concretely about the measurements may not be the point. But then again, it may be. I finally looked up “12,000 stadia” to see how big that is. It’s 1,380 miles. That is like a square occupying roughly the center of the United States, from Canada to Mexico, Atlanta to Denver. !!! Or, probably more relevant to John’s audience, a square occupying the space between real-life Jerusalem and Rome, and almost three times the north-south distance of the Mediterranean Sea. It dwarfs the Roman Empire. That is a big point.

V16 casually tosses off that “its length and its width and its height are equal.” Again thinking concretely, a city 1,380 miles high is literally unimaginable, at least for me. Mt. Everest is 5.5 miles high. Commercial airliners’ cruising altitude is about 6.5 miles. [Trust me, I’ve been looking this stuff up, because these dimensions are jaw-dropping.]

The “great high wall,” at 144 cubits – a significant square of 12 – works out to be a lot shorter than the city itself by these measurements. That’s about 216 feet. How tall is that? There is a tower on the campus of Yale University, Harkness Tower, that is exactly 216 feet tall. That probably doesn’t mean much to most of us. The Sherman Minton bridge between my little town and Louisville is 250 feet from the Ohio River to the top of the arches, which gives me a little better idea. Others may need to get their own benchmarks.

On the other hand, how vision-dimensions translate into literal human ones is truly imponderable, isn’t it? Surely, the wall ought to seem high relative to the city itself? But I am, honestly, still reeling at the thought of 12,000 stadia.

We learned in v12 that the gates are twelve, and are identified with the 12 tribes of Israel. In v14 we learn that the foundations are also 12-fold, and identified with the 12 apostles of the Lamb. Then in v19, we have the list of the gems that further links the 12 tribes of Israel with the 12 apostles of the Lamb, through its echo with the breastplate of the high priest [which explicitly represented the 12 tribes]. No names are listed here, so we don’t know exactly how the 12 apostles are being counted. In particular, we don’t know whether Judas Iscariot or Matthias [Acts 1:12-26], or even possibly the apostle Paul, are among those 12. That detail is almost certainly not the main point, but it still might be something worth thinking about.

In v21, each of the 12 gates is a single pearl, and the streets of the city are gold, shining like glass.

Gold and precious stones have become the equivalent of asphalt and cinder blocks. What is the new drywall? Or the new window glass? We can’t even imagine.

Considering the dimensions of ancient city gates, those single pearls have to be enormous, for pearls – miraculously so.

The monstrous oysters have done their work. And the sea is no more.

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Our text skips v22, but the concluding verses help spell out the significance of the vision for us: neither temple, nor sun nor moon, nor lamp needed, since the separations between holy and profane and between day and night have been overcome in this new creation. The home of God is among mortals, so of course the distinction between “life” and “worship” has also been overcome.

We can’t really imagine this.

This is what makes the book of Revelation such a difficult text. In trying to communicate something we can’t possibly envision, it can almost convince us that it has succeeded. But if we think it has, we’re stuck even more firmly in the old creation and its old terms. This is the fundamental problem of all utopian literature: if you knew enough to write an accurate description, you’d already be there. If you use language that makes sense from here, you can’t actually describe there.

What we can know from here is this: whatever Good and Beautiful is, it will be that.

N.B. The paragraphs on dimensions were added 08.12.2022

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[1]  Erickson, Rev. Dr. Sarah F. Summer 2022 Partners in a New Creation Participant’s Book, in The Present Word Adult Bible Lessons, Growing Faith Resources (Presbyterian Publishing Corporation), 2022, 63.

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Images: “Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” (detail), N.Goncharova, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; “The New Jerusalem,” 1645, Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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