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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Revelation 21

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-27

Chapter 21

THE NEW CREATION (Revelation 21:1)

21:1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had gone; and the sea was no more.

John has seen the doom of the wicked, and now he sees the bliss of the blessed.

The dream of a new heaven and a new earth was deep in Jewish thought. "Behold," said God to Isaiah, "I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, or come into mind" (Isaiah 65:17). Isaiah speaks of the new heaven and the new earth which God will make, in which life will be one continual act of worship (Isaiah 66:22). This idea is equally strong between the Testaments. It is God's promise: "I will transform the heaven and make it an eternal blessing and light; and I will transform the earth and make it a blessing" (Enoch 45:4). There will be a new creation accomplished which will endure to eternity (Enoch 72:1). The first heaven will pass away, and the new heaven shall appear; the light of heaven will be seven times brighter; and the new creation will last for ever (Enoch 91:16). The Mighty One will shake creation only to renew it (Baruch 32:6). God will renew his creation (2Esdr 7:75).

The picture is always there and its elements are always the same. Sorrow is to be forgotten; sin is to be vanquished; darkness is to be at an end; the temporariness of time is to turn into the everlastingness of eternity. This continuing belief is a witness to three things--to the unquenchable immortal longings in man's soul, to man's inherent sense of sin and to man's faith in God.

In this vision of the future bliss we come on one of the most famous phrases in the Revelation--"And the sea was no more." This phrase has a double background.

(i) It has a background in the great mythological beliefs of John's time. We have already seen that the Babylonian story of the creation of the world is of a long struggle between Marduk, the god of creation, and Tiamat, the dragon of chaos. In that story the sea, the waters beneath the firmament, became the dwelling-place of Tiamat. The sea was always an enemy. The Egyptians saw it as the power which swallowed up the waters of the Nile and left the fields barren.

(ii) It has a much more human background. The ancient peoples hated the sea, even though, by the time of John, they were voyaging long and far. They did not possess the compass; and, therefore, as far as possible, they coasted along the shores. It is not till modern times that we come on people who rejoice in being sea-faring.

Matthew Arnold spoke of "the salt, estranging sea." Dr. Johnson once remarked bitterly that no man who had the wit to get himself into gaol would ever choose to go to sea. There is an old story of a man who was weary of battling with the sea. He put an oar on his shoulder and set out with the intention of journeying inland until he reached people who knew so little of the sea that they asked him what strange thing he carried on his shoulder.

The Sibylline Oracles (5: 447) say that in the last time the sea will be dried up. The Ascension of Moses (10: 6) says that the sea will return into the abyss. In Jewish dreams the end of the sea is the end of a force hostile to God and to man.

(1) THE NEW JERUSALEM (Revelation 21:2)

21:2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, like a bride adorned for her husband.

Here, again, is a dream of the Jews which never died--the dream of the restoration of Jerusalem, the holy city. Once again it has a double background.

(i) It has a background which is essentially Greek. One of the great contributions to the world's philosophical thought was Plato's doctrine of ideas or forms. He taught that in the invisible world there existed the perfect form or idea of everything upon earth, and that all things on earth were imperfect copies of the heavenly realities. If that be so, there is a heavenly Jerusalem of which the earthly Jerusalem is an imperfect copy. That is what Paul is thinking of when he speaks of the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4:26), and also what is in the mind of the writer to the Hebrews when he speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22).

That way of thought left its mark on Jewish visions between the Testaments. We read that in the Messianic Age the Jerusalem which is invisible will appear (2 Esdras 7:26). The writer of 2 Esdras was, he says, given a vision of it in so far as it was possible for human eyes to bear the sight of the heavenly glory (2 Esdras 10:44-59). In 2Baruch it is said that God made the heavenly Jerusalem before he made Paradise, that Adam saw it before he sinned, that it was shown in a vision to Abraham, that Moses saw it on Mount Sinai, and that it is now present with God (Baruch 4:2-6).

This conception of preexisting forms may seem strange. But at the back of it is the great truth that the ideal actually exists. It further means that God is the source of all ideals. The ideal is a challenge, which, even if it is not worked out in this world, can still be worked out in the world to come.

(2) THE NEW JERUSALEM (Revelation 21:2 continued)

(ii) The second background of the conception of the new Jerusalem is entirely Jewish. In his synagogue form of prayer the Jew still prays:

And to Jerusalem thy city return with compassion, and dwell

therein as thou hast promised; and rebuild her speedily in our

days, a structure everlasting; and the throne of David speedily

establish there. Blessed art thou, O Lord, the builder of

Jerusalem.

John's vision of the new Jerusalem uses and amplifies many of the dreams of the prophets. We shall set down some of these dreams and it will be clear at once how the Old Testament again and again finds its echo in the Revelation.

Isaiah had his dream.

"O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted, behold, I will

set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with

sapphires. I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of

carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones" (Isaiah 54:11-12).

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall

minister to you.... Your gates shall be open continually; day

and night they shall not be shut.... You shall suck the milk

of nations, you shall suck the breast of kings.... Instead of

bronze I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver;

instead of wood, bronze, instead of stones, iron.... Violence

shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction

within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your

gates Praise. 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

will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw

itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days

of mourning shall be ended (Isaiah 60:10-20).

Haggai had his dream.

The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the

former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give

prosperity, says the Lord of hosts (Haggai 2:9).

Ezekiel had his dream of the rebuilt Jerusalem (Ezekiel 40:1-49 and Ezekiel 48:1-35 ) in which we find even the picture of the twelve gates of the city (Ezekiel 48:31-35).

The writers between the Testaments had their dreams.

The city which God loved he made more radiant than the stars

and the sun and the moon; and he set it as the jewel of the

world and made a Temple exceeding fair in its sanctuary, and

fashioned it in size of many furlongs, with a giant tower,

touching the very clouds, and seen of all, so that all the

faithful and the righteous may see the glory of the invisible God,

the vision of delight (The Sibylline Oracles 5: 420427).

And the gates of Jerusalem shall be builded with sapphire and

emerald,

And all thy walls with precious stones,

The towers of Jerusalem shall be builded with gold,

And their battlements with pure gold,

The streets of Jerusalem shall be paved

With carbuncle and stones of Ophir,

And the gates of Jerusalem shall utter hymns of gladness,

And all her houses shall say, Hallelujah!

(Tobit 13:16-18).

It is easy to see that the new Jerusalem was a constant dream; and that John lovingly collected the differing visions--the precious stones, the streets and buildings of gold, the ever-open gates, the light of God making unnecessary the light of the sun and the moon, the coming of the nations and the bringing of their gifts--into his own.

Here is faith! Even when Jerusalem was obliterated, the Jews never lost confidence that God would restore it. True, they expressed their hopes in terms of material things; but these are merely the symbols of the certainty that there is eternal bliss for the faithful people of God.

(1) FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD (Revelation 21:3-4)

21:3-4 And I heard a great voice from heaven. "Behold," it said, "the dwelling-place of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them; and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, nor will there be any grief or crying, nor will there be any more pain, for the first things have gone."

Here is the promise of fellowship with God and all its precious consequences. The voice is that of one of the Angels of the Presence.

God is to make his dwelling-place with men. The word used for dwelling-place is skene (Greek #4633), literally a tent; but in religious use it had long since lost any idea of an impermanent residence. There are two main ideas here.

(i) Skene (Greek #4633) is the word used for the Tabernacle. Originally in the wilderness the Tabernacle was a tent, the skene (Greek #4633) par excellence. This, then, means that God is to make his tabernacle with men for ever, to give his presence to men for ever. Here in this world and amidst the things of time our realisation of the presence of God is spasmodic; but in heaven we will be permanently aware of that presence.

(ii) There are two words totally different in meaning but similar in sound which in early Christian thought became closely connected. Skene (Greek #4633) is one; and the Hebrew shechinah, the glory of God, is the other. SKENE (Greek #4633)--SHECHINAH (compare the Hebrew verb, shakan, to dwell, Hebrew #7931)--the connection in sound brought it about that men could not hear the one without thinking of the other. As a result, to say that the skene (Greek #4633) of God is to be with men immediately brought the thought that the shechinah (compare Hebrew #7931) of God is to be with men. In the ancient times the shechinah (compare Hebrew #7931) took the form of a luminous cloud which came and went. We read, for instance, of the cloud which filled the house at the dedication of Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11). In the new age the glory of God is not to be a transitory thing, but something which abides permanently with the people of God.

(2) FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD (Revelation 21:3-4 continued)

God's promise to make Israel his people and to be their God echoes throughout the Old Testament. "I will make my abode among you... and I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Leviticus 26:11-12). In Jeremiah's account of the new covenant the promise of God is: "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). The promise to Ezekiel is: "My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Ezekiel 37:27). The highest promise of all is intimate fellowship with God, in which we can say: "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine" (SS 6:3).

This fellowship with God in the golden age brings certain things. Tears and grief and crying and pain are gone. That, too, had been the dream of the prophets of the ancient days. "They shall obtain joy and gladness," said Isaiah of the pilgrims of the heavenly way, "and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isaiah 35:10). "I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress" (Isaiah 65:19). Death, too, shall be gone. That, too, had been the dream of the ancient prophets. "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces" (Isaiah 25:8).

This is a promise for the future. But even in this present world those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted, and death is swallowed up in victory for those who know Christ and the fellowship of his sufferings and the power of his Resurrection (Matthew 5:4; Philippians 3:10).

ALL THINGS NEW (Revelation 21:5-6)

21:5-6 And he who is seated upon the throne said: "Behold, I make all things new." And he said: "Write, for these are words that are trustworthy and true." And he said to me: "It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Without price I will give to the thirsty of the fountain of the water of life."

For the first time God himself speaks; he is the God who is able to make all things new. Again we are back among the dreams of the ancient prophets. Isaiah heard God say: "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing" (Isaiah 43:18-19). This is the witness of Paul: "If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). God can take a man and re-create him, and will some day create a new universe for the saints whose lives he has renewed.

It is not God but the Angel of the Presence who gives the command to write. These words must be taken down and remembered; they are true and absolutely to be relied upon.

"I am Alpha and Omega," says God to John, "the beginning and the end." We have already come upon this claim by the risen Christ in Revelation 1:8. Again John is hearing the voice that the great prophets had heard, "I am the first, and I am the last; besides me there is no God" (Isaiah 44:6). Alpha (Greek #1) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and omega (Greek #5598) the last. John goes on to amplify this statement. God is the beginning and the end. The word for "beginning" is arche (Greek #746), and does not simply mean first in point of time but first in the sense of the source of all things. The word for "end" is telos (Greek #5056), and does not simply mean end in point of time but the goal. John is saying that all life begins in God and ends in God. Paul expressed the same thing when he said perhaps a little more philosophically: "For from him, and through him, and to him are all things" (Romans 11:36), and when he spoke of "one God and Father of us all, who is above all, and through all, and in all" (Ephesians 4:6).

It would be impossible to say anything more magnificent about God. At first sight it might seem to remove God to such a distance that we are no more to him than the flies on the windowpane. But what comes next? "To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life." All God's greatness is at the disposal of man. "God so loved that he gave ..." (John 3:16). The splendour of God is used to satisfy the thirst of the longing heart.

THE GLORY AND THE SHAME (Revelation 21:7-8)

21:7-8 "He who overcomes will enter into possession of these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowards, the unbelieving, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all the liars--their part is in the lake burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."

The bliss is not to everyone but only to him who remains faithful when everything seeks to seduce him from his loyalty.

To such a man God makes the greatest promise of all--"I will be his God and he shall be my son." This promise, or something very near to it, was made in the Old Testament to three different people. First, it was made to Abraham. "I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you," God said to Abraham, "... to be God to you and your descendants" (Genesis 17:7). Second, it was made to the son who was to inherit David's kingdom. "I will be his father," said God, "and he shall be my son" (2 Samuel 7:14). Third, it was made in a Psalm which the Jewish scholars always interpreted of the Messiah. "I will make him the first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth" (Psalms 89:27). Here is a tremendous thing. The promise of God to those who overcome is the same that was made to Abraham the founder of the nation, to David on behalf of Solomon his son, and to the Messiah himself. There is no greater honour in all the universe than that which God gives to the man who is true to him.

But there are those who are condemned. The cowards are those who loved ease and comfort more than they loved Christ, and who in the day of trial were ashamed to show whose they were and whom they served. The King James Version gives a wrong impression when it translates deilos (Greek #1169) by "fearful." It is not fear that is condemned. The highest courage is to be desperately afraid and in spite of that to do the right thing and to hold fast to loyalty. What is condemned is the cowardice which denies Christ for safety's sake. The unbelieving are those who refused to accept the Gospel or those who with their lips accepted it, but by their lives showed that they did not believe it. The polluted are those who allowed themselves to be saturated by the abominations of the world. The murderers may well be those who in persecutions slaughtered the Christians. The fornicators are those who lived lives of immorality. Ephesus was full of sorcerers; Acts 19:19 tells how at the preaching of the name of Christ in the early days the magicians burned their books. The idolaters are those who worshipped the false gods of whom the world was full. The liars are those who were guilty of untruth and of the silence which is also a lie.

THE CITY OF GOD (Revelation 21:9-27)

It will be better to read the description of the city of God as a whole before we deal with it in detail.

21:9-27 9 There came to me one of the seven angels who have the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and he spoke with me. "Come," he said, "and I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a 10 great and lofty mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, and it had the glory of God. 11 Its light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, glittering like crystal. 12 It had a wall great and high with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels. There were names written on the 13 gates which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. On the east were three gates, and on the north were three gates, and on the south were three gates, and on the west were three gates. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 15 He who was speaking with me had a golden measuring rod, that he might measure the city and its gates and its walls. 16 The city lies four-square, and its length is the same as its breadth. He measured the city with his measuring rod, and the measurement was twelve thousand stades. Its length and breadth and height are equal. And he measured its wall, 17 and the measurement was one hundred and forty-four cubits, by the measurement of a man, that is, of an angel. 18 The building material of the wall was jasper, and the city was of pure gold like pure glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was a jasper; the second, a sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, 20 an emerald; the fifth, a sardonyx; the sixth, a carnelian; the seventh, a chrysolith; the eighth, a beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprase; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst. 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates consisted of a single pearl. The street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. 22 I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, is its temple, and the Lamb. 23 The city has no need of the sun or the moon to shine for it, for the glory of God illumines it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the earth 25 will bring their glory to it. Its gates will never be shut by day, 26 for, as for night, there will be no night there. They shall bring 27 to it the glory and the honour of the nations; but nothing unclean shall enter into it, nor shall he who practises abominable things or uses falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's Book of Life.

The Bringer Of The Vision (Revelation 21:9-10)

The personality of the bringer of the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem must come as a surprise. He is one of the angels who had the seven bowls filled with the last seven plagues; and the last time we met such an angel he was the bringer of the vision of the destruction of Babylon, the great harlot. It is extraordinary that in Revelation 17:1 the invitation of the angel is: "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot," and that in Revelation 21:9 the invitation, perhaps even of the same angel, is: "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb."

No one can say for certain what much of the symbolism of this chapter stands for. John must have meant something by making the same angel the bearer of such different messages. It may be that John wishes us to see that the servant of God does not choose his task but must do whatever God sends him to do, and must speak whatever word God gives him to speak.

The angel, says John, carried him away in the Spirit to a high mountain. It is in this way that Ezekiel also describes his experience. "He brought me in the visions of God into the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain" (Ezekiel 40:2). H. B. Swete points out that it is wrong to take this literally; the lifting up stands for the elevation of spirit in which a man sees the visions and hears the words which are sent to him by God.

The City's Light (Revelation 21:11)

There is a certain difficulty of translation here. The word used for "light" is phoster (Greek #5458). The normal Greek word for "light" is phos (Greek #5457), and phoster (Greek #5458) is normally the word used for the lights of heaven, the sun, the moon and the stars, for instance, in the Creation story (Genesis 1:14). Does this, then, mean that the body which illumined the city was like a precious stone? Or does it mean that the radiance which played over all the city was like the glitter of a jasper?

We think the word must describe the radiance over the city; it is later quite distinctly said that the city needs no heavenly body like the sun or the moon to give it light, because God is its light.

What, then, is the symbolism? H. B. Swete would find a hint in Philippians 2:15. There Paul says of the Christians at Philippi: "You shine as lights in the world." The holy city is inhabited by thousands and thousands of the saints of God, and it may well be that it is the light of these saintly lives which gives it this glittering glow.

The Wall And The Gates Of The City (Revelation 21:12)

Round the city is a great high wall. Again John is thinking in terms of the prophetic pictures of the re-created Jerusalem. The song of the land of Judah will be: "We have a strong city; God sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks" (Isaiah 26:1). Zechariah hears God say: "I will be to her a wall of fire round about" (Zechariah 2:5). The simplest interpretation of the wall is that it is "the insurmountable bulwark of faith." Faith is the wall behind which the saints of God are secure against the assaults of the world, the flesh and the devil.

In the wall are twelve gates, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. The word for gate is interesting. It is not the normal word which is pule (Greek #4439); it is pulon (Greek #4440). The pulon could be either of two things. A large house was built round an open courtyard. It opened on to the street by a great gate in the outer wall, leading into a spacious vestibule. That could be the picture here. Pulon (Greek #4440) can also mean the gate-tower in a great city, like the gate leading into a battlemented castle.

There are two things to note.

(i) There are twelve gates. Surely this stands for the catholicity of the Church. A man can come by many roads into the kingdom, for "there are as many ways to the stars as there are men to climb them."

(ii) On the gates are the names of the twelve tribes. Surely this stands for the continuity of the Church. The God who revealed himself to the patriarchs is the God who also, and far more fully, revealed himself in Jesus Christ; the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament.

The Gates Of The City (Revelation 21:13)

There are three gates on each of the four sides of the city of God. Part at least of that picture John got from Ezekiel (Ezekiel 48:30-35). What John meant to symbolize by this arrangement other than the catholicity of the Church we do not know. There is one symbolic interpretation which was unlikely to be in his mind, but which is none the less very beautiful and very comforting.

There are three gates on the east. The east is the place of the rising sun and the beginning of the day. These gates could represent the way into the holy city of those who find Christ in the glad morning of their days.

There are three gates on the north. The north is the cold land with a certain chill in it. These gates could stand for the way into the holy city of those who come to Christianity by the intellectual exercise of thought, and have found the faith through their minds rather than through their hearts.

There are three gates on the south. The south is the warm land, where the wind is gentle and the climate soft. These gates could stand for the way into the holy city of those who have come to Christ through their emotions, whose love ran over at the sight of the cross.

There are three gates on the west. The west is the land of the dying day and the setting sun. These gates could stand for the way into the holy city of those who come to Christ in the evening of their days.

The Measuring Of The City (Revelation 21:15-17)

John takes his picture of the man with the measuring rod from Ezekiel 40:3.

(i) We must note the city's shape. It was four-square. It was common enough for cities to be built in the form of a square; both Babylon and Nineveh were like that. But the holy city was not only square; it was in the form of a perfect cube. The length, breadth and height were the same. This is significant. The cube was the symbol of perfection. Both Plato and Aristotle refer to the fact that in Greece the good man was called "four-square" (Plato, Protagoras 339 B Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1. 10. 11 ; Rhetoric 3.11).

It was the same with the Jews. The altar of the burnt offering, the altar of the incense, and the High Priest's breast-plate were all in the form of a cube (Exodus 27:1; Exodus 30:2; Exodus 28:16). Again and again this shape occurs in Ezekiel's visions of the new Jerusalem and the new temple (Ezekiel 41:21; Ezekiel 43:16; Ezekiel 45:2; Ezekiel 48:20). But most important of all, in Solomon's temple the Holy of Holies was a perfect cube (1 Kings 6:20).

There is no doubt of the symbolism which John intends. He intends us to see that the whole of the holy city is the Holy of Holies, the dwelling-place of God.

(ii) We must note the city's dimensions. Each side of the city was twelve thousand stades (compare Greek #4712). A stade is very nearly a furlong; therefore, each side was 1,500 miles long, and the total area of the city was 2,250,000 square miles. The rabbinic dreams of the re-created Jerusalem were vast enough. It was said that it would reach to Damascus and would cover the whole of Palestine. But a city with that area would stretch nearly from London to New York. Surely we are meant to see that in the holy city there is room for everyone. Men are so apt to limit their Churches, to shut out those who do not believe as they do or who do not administer as they do.

Strangely enough it is different when we come to the wall. The wall is 144 cubits high, that is, 266 feet, not very high. The wall of Babylon was 300 feet high, and the walls of the porch of Solomon's temple were 180 feet high. There is no comparison between the height of the wall and the size of the city. Again there is symbolism here. The wall cannot be for defence, for all hostile beings, spiritual and human, have been obliterated or cast into the lake of fire. The only thing the wall can do is delimit the area of the city; and the fact that it is so low shows that delimitation is comparatively unimportant. God is much more eager to bring men in than to shut them out--and his Church must be the same.

The Precious Stones Of The City (Revelation 21:18-21)

The city itself was of pure gold, so pure that it seemed like transparent glass. It is possible that John is here accentuating a feature of the earthly Jerusalem. Josephus describes Herod's temple: "Now the outward face of the temple in its front lacked nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn away their eyes, just as they would at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for as to those parts that were not golden, they were exceeding white" (Josephus: Wars of the Jews 5.5.6).

John goes on to speak of the twelve foundations of the city. Between the twelve gates there were twelve spaces, and the idea is that between these spaces there was one vast foundation stone. Again John may have been thinking of the vast stones in the foundations of the Jerusalem Temple. In the passage which we have just quoted Josephus speaks of stones in the Temple foundation walls of almost 70 feet in length, 8 feet in height, and 9 feet in breadth. In verse 14 John has said that the stones are inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. They were both Jesus' first followers and his ambassadors, and they were literally the foundations of the Church.

In the city of God these foundation stones were all precious stones. The jasper was not the modern opaque jasper but a translucent rock crystal, green in colour. The sapphire appears in the Old Testament story as the stone of the paving on which God stood (Exodus 24:10). Again, it was not the modern sapphire. Pliny describes it as sky-blue, flecked with gold. It was most likely the stone now known as lapis lazuli. The chalcedony was a green silicate of copper, found in mines near Chalcedon. It is described as being like the sheen of green on a dove's neck or in a peacock's tail. The emerald was the modern emerald, which Pliny describes as the greenest of all green stones. The sardonyx was an onyx in which the white was broken by layers of red and brown; it was specially used for cameos. The sard or carnelian took its name from Sardis. It was blood-red, and was the commonest of all stones used for engraving gems. The identification of the chrysolite is uncertain. Its Hebrew name means the stone of Tarshish. Pliny describes it as shining with a golden radiance. It could be a yellow beryl or a gold-coloured jasper. The beryl was like an emerald; the best stones were sea-blue or sea-green. The topaz was a transparent, greenish-gold stone, very highly valued by the Hebrews. Job speaks of the topaz of Ethiopia (Job 28:19). The jacinth is described by ancient writers as being a violet, bluish-purple stone. It is likely that it was the equivalent of the modern sapphire. The amethyst is described as being very similar to the jacinth, but more brilliant.

Have these stones any symbolism?

(i) It may be noted that eight of them are the same as the stones in the breast-plate of the High Priest (Exodus 28:17). John may simply have used the breast-plate as his model.

(ii) It may well be that the only intention of John is to stress the splendour of the city of God in which even the foundations were stones beyond price.

(iii) There is another interesting possibility. In the east there was the idea of the city of the gods in the skies. There the gods dwelt; the sun and the moon and the stars were its lights; the Milky Way was its great street; there were twelve gates through which the stars went in and out upon their business. Connected with the city of the gods there are the signs of the Zodiac, the signs of the parts of the heavens through which the sun passes. The curious thing is that the signs of the Zodiac have as their corresponding precious stones exactly these twelve.

The table is as follows:

The Ram -- amethyst.

The Bull -- jacinth.

The Twins -- chrysoprase.

The Crab -- topaz.

The Lion -- beryl.

The Virgin -- chrysolite.

The Balance -- carnelian.

The Scorpion -- sardonyx.

The Archer -- emerald.

The Goat -- chalcedony.

The Water-carrier -- sapphire.

The Fishes -- jasper.

There is at least the possibility that John was thinking of the city of God as the consummation of the old idea of the city of the Gods, but far outshining it.

But there is one curious point. If that be so, John gives the signs of the Zodiac in precisely the reverse order! What the symbolism of that would be it is impossible to tell, unless it is John's way of saying that the city of the gods is made new in the city of God.

The most staggering use of precious stones in this picture is that the gates of the city of God each consist of one vast pearl. In the ancient world pearls were of all stones most valued. All his life the merchantman would seek the pearl of great price and then count it worth selling all his possessions to buy it (Matthew 13:46). Gates of pearl are a symbol of unimaginable beauty and unassessable riches.

The Presence Of God (Revelation 21:22-23)

In Revelation 21:22 John lays down a unique feature of the city of God; in it there is no temple. When we remember how precious the Temple was to the Jews, this is amazing. But we have already noted that the city is built in the shape of a perfect cube, indicating that it itself is the Holy of Holies. The city needs no temple because the presence of God is continually there.

Here is symbolism which is plain for all to see. Buildings do not make a Church nor liturgy, nor form of government, nor method of ordination to the ministry. The one thing which makes a Church is the presence of Jesus Christ. Without that there can be no such thing as a Church; with that any gathering of people is a real Church.

The city of God needed no created light, because God the uncreated light was in the midst of her. "The Lord," said Isaiah, "will be your everlasting light" (Isaiah 60:19-20). "In thy light," said the Psalmist, "do we see light" (Psalms 36:9). Only when we see things in the light of God, do we see things as they are. Some things which seem vastly important are seen to be unimportant when seen in the light of God. Some things which seem permissible enough are seen to be dangerous when seen in the light of God. Some things which seem unbearable are seen to be a path to glory when seen in the light of God.

The Whole Earth For God (Revelation 21:24-27)

A passage like this enables us--and even compels us--to redress a wrong which is often done to Jewish thought. Here is a picture of all nations coming to God and of all kings bringing him their gifts. In other words, here is a picture of universal salvation. It is often said that the Jews looked for nothing but the destruction of the Gentiles. It is true that we find sayings like: "God created the Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell." It is true that there is a strain of Jewish thought which expected the annihilation, or at least the enslavement, of the Gentiles; but there is much on the other side, and voice after voice speaks of the time when all men shall know and love God.

Isaiah has a picture of the day when all nations will go up to Mount Sion to be taught the law and to learn to walk in the ways of God (Isaiah 2:2-4). God will set up an ensign to which all the nations will come (Isaiah 11:12). It is God's word of privilege to Israel: "I will give you for a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). The isles will wait upon God and in his arm will they trust (Isaiah 51:5). Nations who never knew God will run to him (Isaiah 55:5). The sons of the stranger will learn to love God and to serve him. God will gather others to him (Isaiah 56:6-8). It is Israel's task to declare God's glory among the Gentiles (Isaiah 66:19). The ends of the earth are invited to look to God and to be saved (Isaiah 45:22). All nations shall be gathered to Jerusalem, and shall recognize it as the throne of the Lord, and will no more stubbornly follow their evil heart (Jeremiah 3:17). The Gentiles will come to God from the ends of the earth, confessing and repenting of the previous errors of their ways (Jeremiah 16:19-21). All peoples, nations and languages will serve the one who is like a son of man (Daniel 7:14). All men shall worship God, everyone from his place, even all the isles of the heathen (Zephaniah 2:11). God will give all men a pure language in which they may with one consent call upon him (Zephaniah 3:9). All flesh will be silent before God (Zechariah 2:13). Many people and the inhabitants of many cities will come to Jerusalem. People of all races and tongues shall "take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you" (Zechariah 8:20-23). The day will come when the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day there will be one Lord (Zechariah 14:9).

What is true of the Old Testament is true of the literature between the Testaments. The vision in Tobit is:

A bright light shall shine unto all the ends of the earth; Many nations shall come from afar, And the inhabitants of the utmost ends of the earth unto thy holy

name; With their gifts in their hands unto the king of heaven (Tobit 13:11).

All the nations which are in the whole earth, all shall turn and fear God truly, all shall leave their idols (Tobit 14:6).

Enoch writes nobly of God's chosen one:

He shall be a stall to the righteous whereon to stay themselves

and not fall,

And he shall be a light of the Gentiles,

And the hope of those who are troubled of heart.

All who dwell on earth shall fall down and worship before him,

And will praise and bless and celebrate with song the Lord of

Spirits (Enoch 48:4-5).

The writer of Enoch hears the voice of God say: "All the children of men shall become righteous, and all nations shall offer adoration, and shall praise me, and shall worship me" (Enoch 10:21).

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs is full of this universal hope. When the Messiah comes "in his priesthood the Gentiles shall be multiplied in knowledge upon the earth, and enlightened in the grace of the Lord" (Testament of Levi 18:9). It is the word of God: "If ye work that which is good, my children, both men and angels will bless you; and God shall be glorified among the Gentiles through you." It is Israel's task "to gather the righteous from among the Gentiles" (Testament of Naphtali 8:3, 4). God will save all Israel and all the Gentiles (Testament of Asher 7:3). The Sibylline Oracles has a noble passage which tells of the reaction of the Gentiles when they see the goodness of God to Israel:

Then all the isles and the cities shall say, How doth the Eternal

love those men! For all things work in sympathy with them and

help them, the heaven, and God's chariot the sun, and the moon.

A sweet strain shall they utter from their mouths in hymns. Come,

let us all fall upon the earth and supplicate the Eternal King, the

mighty, everlasting God. Let us make procession to his Temple,

for he is the sole Potentate. And let us all ponder the law of the

Most High God, who is the most righteous of all upon the earth.

But we had gone astray from the path of the Eternal, and with

foolish heart worshipped the work of men's hands, idols and images

of men that are dead (Sibylline Oracles 3: 710-723).

Nations shall come from the ends of the earth to see the glory of God (Wis 17:34).

When John pictured the nations walking in the light of the city of God and the kings bringing their gifts to it, he was foretelling the consummation of a hope which was always in the hearts of the greatest of his countrymen.

Reception And Rejection (Revelation 21:24-27 Continued)

We gather up three further points before we leave this chapter.

(i) More than once John insists that there will be no night in the city of God. The ancient peoples, like children, were afraid of the dark. In the new world the frightening dark will be no more, for the presence of God will bring eternal light. Even in this world of space and time, where God is, the night is as bright as the day (Psalms 139:12).

H. B. Swete sees further symbolism here. In the city of God there will be no darkness. Again and again it has happened that an age of brilliance has been followed by an age of darkness. But in the new age the darkness will be gone and there will be nothing but light.

(ii) John, like the ancient prophets, repeatedly speaks of the Gentiles and their kings bringing their gifts to God. It is true that the nations did bring their gifts to the Church. The Greeks brought the power of their intellect. To them, as Plato said, "the unexamined life was the life not worth living," and so the unexamined faith was the faith not worth having. To the Greeks we owe theology. The Romans were the greatest experts in government the world has ever seen. To the Church they brought their ability to organize and to administer and to formulate law. When a man enters the Church, he must bring his gift with him; the writer his power in words, the artist his power in colour, the sculptor his mastery of line and form and mass, the musician his music, the craftsman his craft. There is no gift which Christ cannot use.

(iii) The chapter ends with a threat. Those who will not lay aside the evil of their ways are barred from the city of God. There is a sinner who sins against his will; there is a sinner who deliberately sins. It is not the repentant sinner, but the defiant sinner, who is barred from the city of God.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 21:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-21.html. 1956-1959.

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