Heaven…is it a reality or merely an idealistic dream? The Bible plainly presents it as the dwelling place of God. For redeemed humanity, it is also a literal and glorious city prepared for them by their Lord and Savior. And while its perfection is beyond our finite comprehension, God has revealed its existence and glory in terms that should create a yearning in the heart of Christians.
Our Lord Jesus Christ promised He was going to heaven to prepare a place for His bride (i.e. saints) in the Father’s house (Jn. 14:1-4). He called it the Paradise of God where those in His kingdom ultimately dwell with Him (Lk. 23:43; Rev. 2:7). The writer of Hebrews says it is “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” where Christ reigns in His glorified humanity as Mediator of the New Covenant and as God the Judge of all. Innumerable angels are also there, but emphasis is placed on heaven’s present citizens — the spirits of justified humanity yet to be glorified in resurrection (Heb. 12:22-24; cf. Rev. 21:1-7). Paul called it “the Jerusalem above” which is free from sin’s bondage (Gal. 4:26).
We know that heaven is real, but what is it really like? We asked that question as we considered verses 9-11, and we noted it is the home of saints and glory of God. To understand it in general, we must understand who God is as our holy Creator and Redeemer. It is a place which showcases redemption. So what is heaven like more specifically in terms of its appearance?
In this chapter, the heavenly city is called the New Jerusalem (v. 2; i.e. the eternal city filled with all the saints who will then be fully glorified in resurrection) and the holy Jerusalem (v. 10; i.e. it is set apart by Holy God for His dwelling with His holy people). We are informed in verses 12-21 that it is the promise of Scripture, the abode of God, and the splendor of eternity. These aspects are revealed in descriptive terms, and they confirm this as a very literal place constructed to reflect God’s eternal union with His saints. The promise of Scripture is emphasized in verses 12-14.
The New Jerusalem (21:9-21) – Part II
Promise of Scripture (vv. 12-14)
We know from verse 11 that New Jerusalem is likened to a rare, crystal-clear gemstone refracting the glory of God throughout the new creation (“having the glory of God”; cf. 21:1). John the apostle sees it descending from the highest heaven as the kingdom’s capital city (v. 10). That is more of a general description of its purpose than its appearance. However, we now transition into a commentary on its physical characteristics, which memorialize God’s salvation of sinners.
Verses 12-14 describe the “wall” of the city, but this wall clearly commemorates the promise of redemption revealed throughout Scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are prominently emphasized.
We are first told the wall is “great and high,” meaning it is not possible to enter the city by climbing it. In other words, the New Jerusalem can only be entered via its designated “gates.” The walls of ancient cities were for protection, and the gates were only opened during the day in times of peace. However, this will not be the case in heaven. Since there will be no night, the gates will never be shut (Rev. 21:25). There is nothing in the new creation to be kept out because only righteousness exists there (2 Pet. 3:13). All who could defile or cause an abomination or lie are already in the eternal lake of fire (cf. Rev. 20:11-15; 21:8, 27).
The promise of Scripture throughout has always been that entrance into heaven is by grace (the gate), not works (the wall). The Old Testament reveals this as God justified Abraham who believed the promise of salvation through the Redeemer who was to come (cf. Gen. 3:15; 15:6; Rom. 4). But after the promise was initially made, and prior to Christ, the Scripture also revealed God’s Law in no uncertain terms (Gal. 3:17). It was made very clear that living before God in His kingdom required absolute holiness (cf. Lev. 18:5; Lk. 10:28; Rom. 10:5). Without moral perfection the sinner must die, which means that, apart from God’s grace, all of humanity is under the condemnation of divine law (cf. Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:1-31). But the promise of salvation in Christ was proclaimed faithfully by the prophets until Jesus Christ came into the world to redeem sinners by His death on the cross (Lk. 24:44, Gal. 3:19, etc.).
The New Jerusalem will prominently display “twelve gates” in its high wall (three on each side – v. 13) on which are “written” the “names of the twelve tribes of Israel”. In addition, the gates are guarded by “twelve angels” — one symbolically stationed at each gate. What does all this mean? Clearly it will remind the saints that they could never have entered heaven except for the grace of God.
God’s Law (delivered by the LORD to Moses via angels; cf. Deut. 33:2; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2) had forbidden sinners to approach Him by the idolatry of false religion and emphasized sin’s personal nature (Ex. 20:1-17). Angelic beings are seen in this book guarding the way into the holy presence of God (Rev. 4:8). But in heaven, the angels are not keeping anyone from God. They are instead a reminder of God’s requirement of holiness, which once separated people from their Creator but now in heaven is their delight (Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48).
It is a gracious act of God to justify, sanctify, and glorify Christians, and it is possible only by Christ’s atoning work on the cross. There our sinless Lord Jesus became sin for us that we may become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). This transformation of sinners into saints fit for heaven is symbolized by the names of the tribes of Israel descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob (a.k.a. “Israel”). It is through the nation Israel that the Christ came into the world to minister reconciliation (Rom. 9:5; 2 Cor. 5:18-19).
However, not only believing Israelites are in heaven; believing Gentiles from every nation can also enter the New Jerusalem (Gal. 3:9; Rev. 7:9-17). It can be argued that this is symbolized here by the equal number of gates on all four walls (i.e. entering from every direction). Salvation is through the Jewish people in that God established their nation to bring Christ into the world (Jn. 4:22; Rom. 9-11), thus the names of the tribes on the gates.
God’s Law given in Scripture has confined all under sin, but the promise of faith is redemption through Christ for Jews and Gentiles (Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:9). This was progressively revealed in the Law and the Prophets and is fulfilled in the New Testament.
Verse 14 says more about the “wall of the city.” Not only is it a great wall with 12 gates symbolically guarded by angels, but it has “twelve foundations.” That is, it has either 12 distinct layers or perhaps sections to its foundation. The configuration is not explained, but we are informed that “on them were the names of the twelve apostles.” Just as the 12 gates are inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel, so are the apostle’s names inscribed on the foundation.
The apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ were chosen by Him to receive His doctrine as the completion of Scripture. With it they were to establish His Church of believing Jews and Gentiles as His embassy on earth until His return (Matt. 10; Jn. 14-17; Acts 2:42). That is made very clear in chapters two and three of this book. Therefore, it is said in Ephesians 2:19-22 that Christ is the cornerstone of the household of God with the apostles and prophets being the foundation (cf. Eph. 4:11-16).
So the wall of the New Jerusalem represents, in its entirety, the promise of God to the saints. It will forever remind His people of the eternal death they deserved but simultaneously of the eternal life they received by grace. It will commemorate the reconciliation of a holy God with sinners who were otherwise condemned to die for their treason.
Heaven is so much more than an idealistic dream. It is a very real city where redeemed sinners will always enjoy fellowship with God and one another. Its beauty and splendor are beyond comprehension, but we know that it will provide an eternity of wonder and continual praise to God — a perpetual monument to His grace!
Is heaven your eternal home, or are you still condemned to eternal death by God’s Law? Have you believed the promise of Scripture? Have you sincerely turned to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation?
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