Expositor's Bible Commentary
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.CHAPTER XVII.
THE NEW JERUSALEM. REV.
Revelation 21:1-27; Revelation 22:1-5.
THE first part of the final triumph of the Lamb has been accomplished, but the second has still to be unfolded. We are introduced to it by one of those preparatory or transition passages which have already frequently met us in the Apocalypse, and which connect themselves both with what precedes and with what follows: -
"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He shall dwell with them, and they shall be His peoples, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God: and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more: the first things are passed away. And He that sitteth on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And He saith, Write: for these words are faithful and true. And He said unto me, They are come to pass. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit these things; and I will be his God, and he shall be My son. But for the fearful, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part shall be in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death (Revelation 21:1-8)."
These words, like many others that have already met us, throw light upon the principles on which the Apocalypse is composed. They show in the clearest possible manner that down to the very end of the book chronological considerations must be put out of view. Chronology cannot be thought of when we find, on the one hand, allusions to the new Jerusalem which are only amplified and extended in the next vision of the chapter, or when we find, on the other hand, a description of the exclusion from the new Jerusalem of certain classes that have already been consigned to "the second death." By the first-mentioned allusions the passage connects itself with what is yet to come, by the second with what has gone before. For the same reason it is unnecessary to dwell upon the passage at any length. It contains either nothing new, or nothing that will not again meet us in greater fullness of detail One or two brief remarks alone seem called for.
The Seer beholds a new heaven and a new earth. Two words in the New Testament are translated "new," but there is a difference between them. The one contemplates the object spoken of under the aspect of something that has been recently brought into existence, the other under a fresh aspect given to what had previously existed, but been outworn.* The latter word is employed here, as it is also employed in the phrases a "new garment," that is, a garment not threadbare, like an old one; "new wine-skins," that is, skins not shriveled and dried; a "new tomb," that is, not one recently hewn out of the rock, but one which had never been used as the last resting-place of the dead. The fact, therefore, that the heavens and the earth here spoken of are "new," does not imply that they are now first brought into being. They may be the old heavens and the old earth; but they have a new aspect, a new character, adapted to a new end. Of the sense in which the word "sea" is to be understood we have already spoken. Another expression in the passage deserves notice. In saying that the time is come when the tabernacle of the Lord is with men, and He shall dwell with them, it is added, and they shall be His peoples. We are familiar with the Scripture use of the word "people" to denote the true Israel of God, and not less with the use of the word "peoples" to denote the nations of the earth alienated from Him. But here the word "peoples" is used instead of "people" for God’s children; and the usage can only spring from this: that the Seer has entirely abandoned the idea that Israel according to the flesh can have the word "people" applied to it, and that all believers, to whatever race they belong, occupy the same ground in Christ, and are possessed of the same privileges. The "peoples" are the counterpart of the "many diadems" of Revelation 19:12. (* Trench, Synonyms, second series, p. 39)
"And there came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls, who were laden with the seven last plagues; and he spake with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb. And he carried me away in the spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: her light was like unto a stone most precious, as it were a jasper stone, clear as crystal, having a wall great and high, having twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel On the east went three gates, and on the north three gates, and on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And he that spake with me had for a measure a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length thereof is as great as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs: the length and the breadth and the height thereof are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, a hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of an angel. And the building of the wall thereof was jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto pure glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprase; the eleventh, jacinth; the twelfth, amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the several gates was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God the Almighty, is the temple thereof, and the Lamb. And the city hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine upon it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the lamp thereof is the Lamb. And the nations shall walk amidst the light thereof: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory into it. And the gates thereof shall in no wise be shut by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and the honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it anything unclean, or he that maketh an abomination and a lie: but only they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the street thereof. And on this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, yielding its fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no curse any more: and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be therein; and His servants shall do Him service: and they shall see His face; and His name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall be night no more; and they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun; for the Lord God shall give them light: and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 21:9-27; Revelation 22:1-5)."
The vision contained in these verses is shown the Seer by the angel forming the third of the second group associated with Him who had been described at Revelation 19:11 as the Rider upon the white horse, and who at that time rode forth to His final triumph. The first of this group of three had appeared at Revelation 19:17, and the second at Revelation 20:1. We have now the third; and it is not unimportant to observe this, for it helps to throw light upon the artificial structure of these chapters, while, at the same time, it connects the vision with Christ’s victory upon earth rather than with any scene of splendor and glory in a region beyond the place of man’s present abode. Thus it contributes something at least to the belief that there where the believer wars he also wears the crown of triumph.
The substance of the vision is a description of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the true Church of God wholly separated from the false Church, as she comes down from God, out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Her marriage with the Lamb has taken place, - a marriage in which there shall be no unfaithfulness on the one side and no reproaches on the other, but in which, as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, the Lord shall forever rejoice in His people, and His people in Him. Then follows, to enhance the picture, a detailed account of the true Church under the figure of the city which had been already spoken of in the first vision of the chapter. The treasures of the Seer’s imagination and language are exhausted in order that the thought of her beauty and her splendor may be suitably impressed upon our minds. Her light - that is, the light which she spreads abroad, for the word used in the original indicates that she is herself the luminary - is like that of the sun, only that it is of crystalline clearness and purity, as it were a jasper stone, the light of Him who sat upon the throne.1 She is "the light of the world."2 The city is also surrounded by a wall great and high. She is "a strong city." "Salvation has God appointed her for walls and bulwarks."3 Her walls have twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, those to whom God gives charge over His people, to keep them in all their ways4; while, as was the case with the new Jerusalem beheld by the prophet Ezekiel, names were written on the gates, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.5 These gates are also harmoniously distributed, three on each side of the square which the city forms. The foundations of the city, a term under which we are not to think of foundations buried in the earth, but rather of courses of stones going round the city and rising one above another, are also twelve; and on them are twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (1 Revelation 4:3; 2 Matthew 5:14; 3 Psalm 31:21; Isaiah 26:1; 4 Psalm 91:11; 5Comp. Ezekiel 48:31)
The Seer, however, is not satisfied with this general picture of the greatness of the new Jerusalem. Like that in Ezekiel, the city must be measured.* When this is done, her proportions are found, in spite of the absence of all verisimilitude, to be those of a perfect cube. As in the Holy of holies of the Tabernacle, the thought of which lies at the bottom of the description, the length and the breadth and the height thereof are equal. Twelve thousand furlongs, or fifteen hundred miles, the city stretches along and across the plain, and rises into the sky, twelve, - the number of the people of God, multiplied by thousands, the heavenly number. The wall is also measured - it is difficult to say whether in height or in thickness, but most probably the latter - a hundred and forty and four cubits, or twelve multiplied by twelve. (*Comp. Ezekiel 40:2-3)
The measuring is completed, and next follows an account of the material of which the city was composed. This was gold, the most precious metal, in its purest state, like unto pure glass. Precious stones formed, rather than ornamented, its twelve foundations. Its gates were of pearl: each one of the several gates was of one pearl; and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. In all these respects it is evident that the city is thought of as ideally perfect, and not according to the realities or possibilities of things.
Nor is this all. The glory of the city is still further illustrated by figures bearing more immediately upon its spiritual rather than its material aspect. The out ward helps needed by men in leading the life of God in their present state of imperfection are dispensed with. There is no temple therein: for the Lord, God, the Almighty, is the temple thereof, and the Lamb. The city hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine upon it: for the glory of God lightens it by day, and the lamp thereof by night is the Lamb. There is in it no sin, and every positive element of happiness is provided in abundance for the blest inhabitants. A river of water of life, bright as crystal, flows there; and on this side of the river and on that side is the tree of life, not bearing fruit only once a year, but every month, not yielding one only, but twelve manner of fruits, so that all tastes may be gratified, having nothing about it useless or liable to decay. The very leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations, and it is evidently implied that they are always green. Finally, there shall be no curse any more. The throne of God and of the Lamb is therein. His servants do Hint service. They see His face. His name is in their foreheads. They are priests unto God in the service of the heavenly sanctuary. They reign forever and ever.
One important question still remains: What aspect of the Church does the holy city Jerusalem, thus come down out of heaven from God, represent? Is it the Church as she shall be after the Judgment, when her three great enemies, together with all who have listened to them, have been forever cast out? Or have we before us an ideal representation of the true Church of Christ as she exists now, and before a final separation has been made between the righteous and the wicked? Unquestionably the first aspect of the passage leads to the former view; and, if there be anything like a chronological statement of events in the Apocalypse, no other may be possible. But we have already seen that the thought of chronology must be banished from this book. The Apocalypse contains simply a series of visions intended to exhibit, with all the force of that inspiration under which the Seer wrote, certain great truths connected with the revelation in humanity of the Eternal Son. It is intended, too, to exhibit these in their ideal, and not merely in their historical, form. They are indeed to appear in history; but, inasmuch as they do not appear there in their ultimate and completed form, we are taken beyond the limited field of historical manifestation. We see them in their real and essential nature, and as they are, in themselves, whether we think of evil on the one hand, or of good on the other. In this treatment of them, however, chronology disappears. Such being the case, we are prepared to ask whether the vision of the new Jerusalem belongs to the end, or whether it expresses what, under the Christian dispensation, is always ideally true.
1. It must be borne in mind that the new Jerusalem, though described as a city, is really a figure, not of a place, but of a people. It is not the final home of the redeemed. It is the redeemed themselves. It is "the bride, the wife of the Lamb."* Whatever is said of it is said of the true followers of Jesus; and the great question, therefore, that has to be considered is, whether St. John’s description is applicable to them in their present Christian condition, or whether it is suitable to them only when they have entered upon their state of glorification beyond the grave. (* Revelation 21:9)
2. The vision is really an echo of Old Testament prophecy. We have already seen this in many particulars, and the correspondence might easily have been traced in many more. "It is all," says Isaac Williams, as he begins his comment upon the particular points of the description - "It is all from Ezekiel: ‘The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God, and set me upon a very high mountain, by which was as the frame of a city;’1 ‘And the glory of the Lord came into the house by the gate toward the east;’2 The Lord entered by the eastern gate; therefore shall it be shut, and opened for none but for the Prince.3 Such was the coming of Christ’s glory from the east into His Church, as so often alluded to before."4 Other prophets, no doubt, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto us, who testified beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow, are to be added to Ezekiel, but, whoever they were, it is undeniable that their highest and most glowing representations of that future for which they longed, and the advent of which they were commissioned to proclaim, are reproduced in St. John s description of the new Jerusalem. Of what was it, then, that they spoke? Surely it was of the times of the Messiah upon earth, of that kingdom of God which He was to establish with the beginning, and not with the end, of the Christian dispensation. That they may have looked forward to the world beyond the grave is possible; but any distinction between the first and second coming of our Lord had not yet risen upon their minds. In the simple coming of the Hope of Israel into the world they beheld the accomplishment of every aspiration and longing of the heart of man. And they were right. The distinction which experience taught the New Testament writers to draw was not so much between a first and a second coming of the King as between a kingdom then hidden, but afterwards to be manifested in all its glory. (1 Ezekiel 40:1-2; 2 Ezekiel 43:2 3Ezekiel 44:1-3; 4The Apocalypse, p. 438)
3. This ideal view of the Messianic age is also constantly brought before us in the New Testament. The character, the privileges, and the blessings of those who are partakers of the spirit of that time are always presented to us as irradiated with a heavenly and perfect glory. St. Paul addresses the various churches to which he wrote as, notwithstanding all their imperfections, "beloved of God," "sanctified in Christ Jesus," "saints and faithful brethren in Christ."1 Christ is "in them," and they are "in Christ."2 "Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for it; that He might present the Church to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish,"3 - the description evidently applying to the present world, where also the Church is seated, not in earthly, but in "the heavenly, places" with her Lord.4 Our "citizenship" is declared to be "in heaven;"5 and we are even now "come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to innumerable hosts of angels, and to the general assembly and Church of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven."6 Our Lord Himself and St. John, following in His steps, are even more specific as to the present kingdom and the present glory. "In that day," says Jesus to His disciples, "ye shall know that I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you,"7 and again, "And the glory which Thou hast given Me, I have given unto them; that they may be one, even as We are one;"8 while it is unnecessary to quote the passages meeting us everywhere in the writings of the beloved disciple in which he speaks of eternal life, and that, too, in the full greatness both of its privileges and of its results, as a possession enjoyed by the believer in this present world. The whole witness of the New Testament, in short, is to an ideal, to a perfect, kingdom of God even now established among men, in which sin is conquered, temptation overcome, strength substituted for weakness, death so deprived of its sting that it is no more death, and the Christian, though for a little put to grief in manifold temptations, made "to rejoice greatly with joy unspeakable and glorified."9 From all this the representation of the new Jerusalem in the Apocalypse differs in no essential respect It enters more into particulars. It illustrates the general thought by a greater variety of detail. But it contains nothing which is not found in principle in the other sacred writers, and which is not connected by them with the heavenly aspect of the Christian’s pilgrimage to his eternal home. (1 Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; Colossians 1:2;2Colossians 1:27; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Php 3:9; 3 Ephesians 5:25-27; 4 Ephesians 1:3; 5 Php 3:20; 6 Hebrews 12:22-23; 7 John 14:20; 8 John 17:22; 9 1 Peter 1:8)
4. There are distinct indications in the apocalyptic vision which leave no interpretation possible except one, - that the new Jerusalem has come, that it has been in the midst of us for more than eighteen hundred years, that it is now in the midst of us, and that it shall continue to be so wherever its King has those who love and serve Him, walk in His light, and share His peace and joy.
(1) Let us look at Revelation 20:9, where we read of "the camp of the saints and the beloved city." That city is none other than the new Jerusalem, about to be described in the following chapter. It is Jerusalem after the elements of the harlot character have been wholly expelled, and the call of Revelation 18:4 has been heard and obeyed, "Come forth, My people, out of her." She is inhabited now by none but "saints," who, though they have still to war with the world, are themselves the "called, and chosen, and faithful." But this "beloved city" is spoken of as in the world, and as the object of attack by Satan and his hosts before the Judgment.* (*Comp. Foxley, Hulsean Lectures, Lect. 1)
(2) Let us look at Revelation 21:24 and Revelation 22:2 : "And the nations shall walk by the light thereof; and the kings of the earth do bring their glory into it;" "And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." Who are these "nations" and these "kings of the earth"? The constant use of the same expressions in other parts of this book, where there can be no doubt as to their meaning, compels us to understand them of nations and kings beyond the pale of the covenant. But if so, the difficulty of realizing the situation at a point of time beyond the Judgment appears to be insuperable, and may be well illustrated by the effort of Hengstenberg to overcome it "Nations," says that commentator, "in the usage of the Revelation, are not nations generally, but always heathen nations in their natural or Christianized state; compare at Revelation 20:3. That we are to think here only of converted heathen is as clear as day. No room for conversion can be found on the further side of Revelation 20:15, for everyone who had not been found written in the book of life has already been cast into the lake of fire."* But the words "or Christianized" in this comment have no countenance from any other passage in the Apocalypse, and in Hengstenberg’s note at Revelation 20:3 we are referred to nothing but the texts before us. On every other occasion, too, where the word "nations" meets us, it means unconverted, not converted, nations; and here it can mean nothing else. Were the nations spoken of converted, they would be a part of that new Jerusalem which is not the residence of God’s people, but His people themselves. They would be the light, and not such as walk "by the light" of others. They would be the healed, and not those who stand in need of "healing." These "nations" must be the unconverted, these "kings of the earth" such as have not yet acknowledged Jesus to be their King; and nothing of this can be found beyond Revelation 20:15. (*Commentary in Clark’s Foreign Theological Library, in loc.)
(3) Let us look at Revelation 21:27, where we read, "And there shall in no wise enter into it anything unclean, or he that doeth an abomination and a lie." These words distinctly intimate that the time for final separation had not yet come. Persons of the wicked character described must be supposed to be alive upon the earth after the new Jerusalem has appeared.
5. Another consideration on the point under discussion may be noticed, which will have weight with those who admit the existence of that principle of structure in St. John’s writings upon which it rests. Alike in the Gospel and in the Apocalypse the Apostle is marked by a tendency to return at the close of a section to what he had said at the beginning, and to shut up, as it were, between the two statements all he had to say. So here. In Revelation 1:3 he introduces his Apocalypse with the words, "For the time is at hand." In Revelation 22:10, immediately after closing it, he returns to the thought, "Seal not up the words of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand; "that is, the whole intervening revelation is enclosed between these two statements. All of it precedes the "time" spoken of. The new Jerusalem comes before the end.
In the new Jerusalem, therefore, we have essentially a picture, not of the future, but of the present; of the ideal condition of Christ s true people, of His "little flock" on earth, in every age. The picture may not yet be realized in fullness; but every blessing lined in upon its canvas is in principle the believer’s now, and will be more and more his in actual experience as he opens his eyes to see and his heart to receive. We have been wrong in transferring the picture of the new Jerusalem to the future alone. It belongs also to the past and to the present. It is the heritage of the children of God at the very time when they are struggling with the world; and the thought of it ought to stimulate them to exertion and to console them under suffering.