Alonso Cano, Saint John the Evangelist’s Vision of Jerusalem (1636-1637)
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. 18 The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
As we approach the conclusion of this long journey through Revelation, I’m going to begin with a story I’ve used several times in teaching and preaching. I believe the story originated with Kelly Fryer based on her experience in college, but the overall point is very insightful for the bible as a whole, and this passage in particular.
There once was a college class on theology where the students were being the way that college students can sometimes be: they were talking and not paying attention to the instructor, interacting with their phones and tablets instead of taking notes and just generally being a handful for the instructor. Unable to garner a lot of attention for the topic the instructor was trying to present he erased the writing on the board and drew a single arrow pointing downward. This change caught the attention of the students and the professor ended by saying, “This is what we will be talking about next time we gather for class. I will see you then.” He then dismissed the class. This perplexed the students and they talked about what the downward pointing arrow might mean: “It means that the standards of society have fallen,” “it means we are all going to fail,” or since it was a theology class “does it mean we are going to hell?” When the class resumed the professor asked the students what they thought the arrow might mean and they responded with several of their thoughts. The professor politely explained that their answers, while creative, were not what the arrow was communicating. The arrow stands for the message he hoped they would take away from his class, “God always comes down.”
The narrative throughout scripture is of a God who desires to dwell among God’s people, whether walking in the garden with Adam and Eve, in the tabernacle in the Exodus, or in the incarnation in the gospels, God’s desire is to descend to dwell among the people of the earth. Here in the final two chapters of Revelation we see this descent of God viewed in ways that taps into several images from the prophets. Within the narrative of Revelation, it also presents a stark contrast between two possible choices and futures, between a future where the people choose the ways of Babylon (Rome) with all its allures and the future presented here when the peoples choose the way of wisdom and find themselves observing the coming of the new Jerusalem. Throughout Revelation we have alternated between those who rejoice with the countless multitude in heaven and those who worship the beast and the reader has been encouraged to courageously endure with the saints the persecutions and struggles rather than being cowardly or faithless and embracing the values and practices of the empire.
The opening line of the chapter echoes Isaiah 65:17, which states that God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth after the devastation and suffering that the people of Israel suffered in their exile in Babylon. Now with the destruction of the ‘new’ Babylon and the forces behind it this promise is reimagined within the context of God’s final descent and victory. Revelation never pictures the earth being destroyed, other than the disasters and conflicts that are a part of Revelation’s story, but the new heaven and new earth are an extension of God’s faithfulness and love for the earth rather than an elimination of the old creation and a replacement by the new. The new heavens and new earth may also reflect the healing of memory from the trauma of the treatment the saints received during persecution and may echo Isaiah 43: 18-19 when it says, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.”
Henry John Stock, God Shall Wipe Away all Tears from Their Eyes (1912)
The voice from the throne captures the hope of the passage by combining several images of hope together into a single statement. For the people of Israel, the hope of God’s dwelling among them goes back to the tabernacle where God dwelled with the people during their journey through the wilderness. This image gets reimagined in the prophets, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where God’s covenant is renewed, and the people of Israel will again claim their identity as God’s people and God will renew God’s commitment to be their God. The language follows Ezekiel 37: 27, “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” God wiping away the tears of the people is one of my favorite lines in the passage and echoes Isaiah 25: 8 where after destroying the shroud that is cast over the nations and swallowing up death, God wipes away the tears from the faces of God’s people and removes their disgrace. John sees a time when the pain and suffering of the present are ended, and the renewed creation can be a place where God’s long-awaited presence and promises are fulfilled.
The one seated on the throne, God, speaks and commands that the words of God are recorded for those who will receive this recorded vision. The making of all things new recaptures what immediately proceeded by the voice from the throne and again echoes Isaiah 43: 18. The identity of the one on the throne as the Alpha and Omega is a recurring title we first encountered in Revelation 1:8, which uses the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to encapsulate the statement that God is the beginning of all things and the ending of all things. God holds all the things of heaven and earth within God’s realm and power and the future depends upon God’s provision. God next promises the gift of the springs of the water of life, first mentioned in Revelation 7: 17 and will flow as a river from the throne of God in the following chapter. We are also brought back to a continual theme throughout Revelation when we are told ‘those who conquer’ will inherit. Conquering in Revelation is redefined in light of Christ’s conquest as remaining faithful despite persecution. Beginning with the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2: 1-7 and throughout the book we have been exhorted to conquer and promised a reward for remaining steadfast. Now that reward comes in the form of adoption and inheritance. The language moves the relationship of God from being “I will be their God and they will be my people” to the familial language, “they will be my sons and daughters (children)” With this kinship which is extended is also a share in the inheritance of God.
In contrast with those who conquer and inherit are those who do not conquer and receive a different inheritance. The list of vices in verse eight begins with the cowardly and the faithless and then continues with items that frequently occur on these types of list of vices that do not belong in God’s kingdom. Revelation, like wisdom literature in the Bible, presents us with a choice between what it considers wisdom and folly. To choose wisdom is to remain faithful to Christ and to turn away from the promises of prosperity offered by the Roman empire if they will compromise their values and accommodate some of the practices of the society. The choice of folly, in Revelation’s view, is the choice of accommodation. This is viewed as both cowardice, within the military metaphor of conquest, and idolatry, or faithlessness. This list of vices represents a different set of values than those embodied in this realized kingdom of God and there is no place within the city of God for things like murder or fornication or lies.
I intentionally waited to discuss the appearance of the New Jerusalem now metaphorically occupying the space of the bride of the Lamb since it is mentioned at the beginning of the chapter but is described in verses nine through twenty-seven. We are immediately reminded of the contrast between Babylon (Rome) who is portrayed as a harlot and the new Jerusalem decked out as a bride by the presence of the angel who had carried one of the bowls which contained the last plagues (Revelation 16). Previously these angels saw the rivers turned to blood, the sun to darkness and plagues of sores but now one of these angels points us to a city where there is the water of life, the light of God’s glory and healing for the nations. The description of the city touches on numerous images throughout scripture. For several of the prophets there was a hope for a rebuilt city of Jerusalem, the closest representation to our image would be the square city mentioned in Ezekiel with its twelve gates (Ezekiel 48: 30-35) but the city described here dwarfs anything imagined previously. The city is a cube of massive proportions, 1,500 miles in width, depth and height. For perspective, 1,500 miles is roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Houston, and the highest point on earth is roughly 5 ½ miles above sea level. The envisioned city is unimaginably large. This is a city imagined which could house all the nations of the earth and bring them into proximity with God. The walls are also incredibly thick, almost seventy-five yards, with twelve gates made of pearl guarded by twelve angels. Cherubim were described in Genesis as guarding the way to the tree of life, but here they stand at the gates that allow entrance to the city where these trees live, yet there is nothing left to threaten the city, the people or the trees. The foundations are built on stones that are similar to the list of the stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:17-20 and Exodus 39: 10-13) and many of these stones also appear in the lamentation over the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28: 13, where the king is placed among God’s created things in the garden of Eden and covered with most of these precious stones. The size, the jewels, the golden streets and city all combine to stretch the imagination, yet the one thing not present in the city is a temple. The temple, and the tabernacle before it, brought a little bit of heaven to earth yet now heaven and earth seem to dwell together in the city for God dwells in it. There is no need for there to be a place to mediate the presence of God for God’s glory provides the illumination to the city and God has come down to dwell among God’s people.