Prophetic books like Revelation very often gives us the keys we need to make correct interpretations (so we don't have to rely on the imagination of specialty teachers or today's newspapers). In the case of the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22, the keys help us understand not a future heaven, but a present reality for Christians: "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 loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away'" (Revelation 21:2-4). What do these verses tell us?
- The New Jerusalem is not heaven, but comes down from heaven.
- It is compared to a bride adorned for her husband.
- It fulfills the promise of God's presence with His people.
There are elements in these verses that sum up everything God has ever promised in all of Scripture.
A few verses later the apostle John says, "one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and spoke with me, saying, 'Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb'" (Revelation 21:9). He's going to show us "the bride, the wife of the Lamb." Who is called the bride throughout the New Testament? The Church (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 19:7,8)! So, as we go to the next verse, we are told we are going to see "the bride, the wife of the Lamb." What do we see? "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God" (Revelation 21:10,11). The "holy city, Jerusalem," is the Church, which has the glory of God and is given from heaven (not created or built by men). In all the descriptions that follow, we are not being given a picture of heaven, but a highly figurative picture of "the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).
So why the architecture and all the physical details (Revelation 21:11-22:5)? Remember the original recipients of Revelation (it wasn't written primarily for us). A.D. 1st-century Christians faces incredible opposition from the religious establishment of Jerusalem, which spread its desire to eradicate Christianity all over the Roman Empire (read the book of Acts). In addition to this, the Roman Empire got in on the action in the years leading up to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the descent of the Empire into chaos in A.D. 70. The Church is described in such glorious terms of unmatched architecture to show them who had the real Temple of God: the Church. If you think the New Jerusalem is a literal cube with 1,500 miles per side (21:16), you've been watching too much Star Trek (most of it would extend into the vacuum of space and need to be pressurized; no problem for God, but do we seriously think He would communicate this to comfort persecuted A.D. 1st-century Christians?). By the way - it's literally "12,000 stadia." 12 x 1,000. Every number in Revelation is symbolic. All of this figurative architectural detail is to assure the Christians that no matter what is built on Temple Mount in Jerusalem or on the various hills throughout the Roman Empire, there was one Temple of God, and it was them.
- The Church has both the authority of the apostles (Revelation 21:14; cf. Ephesians 2:19-22) and the blessings promised to the patriarchs of Israel (Revelation 21:12; cf. Galatians 3:14,29).
- There is no need for a Temple cult: the only sacrifice ever needed has been made (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18).
- There is no need for the lights of heaven to signal feasts and rituals (Revelation 21:23; cf. Genesis 1:14): it is all accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, and the only sign we need is His glory.
- We have all the light we will ever need, "for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb" (Revelation 21:23). This glory, this lamp we were given out of heaven on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church, never to depart (Acts 2:1-4,16-21). This Spirit is the Spirit of truth, Who teaches us, reminds us of Christ's words, and guides us (John 4:23,24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6; 5:6). We have no need of other light that the Spirit and truth (the Bible).
The apostle Paul gives us another witness to this assertion of Revelation. Paul never uses the term "Temple of God" or "House of God" unless he is referring to the Church (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21). Even his warning of a "man of lawlessness" in God's Temple makes more sense in the original context of the letter if we realize he is warning that Church of an apostasy that will arise within it, not of the violation of a distant Temple that has no personal significance for his largely Gentile audience (2 Thessalonians 2:3-9). Jesus Himself refers to His own body as the Temple (John 2:14-22). Not to add another metaphor, but...the Church is that body (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:22,23; 4:12).
The bride's job is to clothe herself in the works of God (Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:12,13; Hebrews 13:20,21). "Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Revelation 19:7,8). How has she made herself ready? By clothing herself in that which was given to her. She doesn't create her own righteous acts, inventing them out of her own creativity, marketing plan, morality, or business model. They are given to her (clearly in the letters of the apostles). By the way, the marriage feast is the destruction of God's enemies at the hand of Christ, the bridegroom - not a the Church (Revelation 19:11-21)...I'm sure there's an unimaginable celestial buffet, but that's not what Revelation speaks of here!
Consider: "And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him Who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:22,23). Jesus is head over all things, and head over the Church. The Church is Christ's body, and Christ fills everything. These verses are stunning to me. Twice Paul calls the Church "all things." What does that mean? Maybe I should digress a moment. In other places Paul says that all things belong to believers, even things we may not want, like death (Romans 8:32; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23). This means that even the unbelievers have a purpose in God's plan for believers (Proverbs 16:4; Romans 9:22,23). All of reality exists for one purpose, to bring about God's purpose for the Church. What is God's purpose for the Church? Conformity to Christ (Romans 8:28-30). God loves His Son more than anything in the entire universe. I would even say that God loves only His Son, and we experience God's love solely by our place in the Son (Romans 8:38,39; Ephesians 1:4-6). The apex of this creation is the Church, because it is being made into the image of Christ by the work of God the Holy Spirit. Even the things outside the Church exist as contrast to what the Church is and the character of her Lord.
Get this scriptural teaching firmly in your mind, and it will radically change your view of the Church and how gullible you are to the "end-times experts," i.e., snake-oil salesman (I think reading Revelation 21:9-11 as it demands to be read requires that we re-visit our interpretations of all of Revelation...and the New Testament...and the Old Testament!). God's presence is here, now, and real in the Church with His people. Instead of trying to re-create the "good old days" or investing all our hopes in tomorrow, we have God Himself here and now - maybe we should stop insulting Him by wishing for so much more. Maybe we should stop ignoring Him by staying away from the entity where He has promised His presence. Maybe we should stop treating the Church like it belongs to us or our denomination, or like it is something we have built for ourselves with our own ingenuity and efforts.
Thank God for His glorious Church!