Teaching series from Revelation

God's Eternal Kingdom (Part 2)

Revelation 21:9-27

Teaching t23025


We’ve come to the last two chapters of Revelation, which describe God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus referred to this “place” as His great promise to all of His followers (read Jn.14:2,3). In Rev. 21,22, we have the longest description in the New Testament of this “place.” John calls it “the new heavens and the new earth” and “the new Jerusalem” (NJ).

A few weeks ago, we studied his overview vision about the NJ (21:1-8). Next, John describes a more extensive vision about the NJ. In 21:9-27, he describes the “exterior” of it, while in 22:1-5, he describes the “interior” of it. We’ll look at the “exterior” this week, and at the “interior” next week.

The New Jerusalem: literal or symbolic description?

Read 21:9-27. Before we go any farther, we need to decide whether John’s vision of the NJ is to be understood literally or symbolically/figuratively. Evangelical teachers have differing answers to this question. Some, like Randy Alcorn, think we should understand it literally – as a literal city in the shape of a massive cube, etc. Others, like Oswald Sanders, think we should understand it as primarily symbolic – yet communicating a glorious literal reality. I am personally persuaded that it is primarily symbolic for the following reasons:

First, all of John’s other visions have been highly symbolic. For example, the binding of Satan in Rev. 20 symbolized this as a dragon being physically chained and imprisoned. Yet we know from the Bible that angelic beings (which Satan is) cannot be physically restrained (see Acts5:19; 12:7-10). Since all the previous visions employed much symbolism, it makes sense to expect this vision to be highly symbolic.

Second, the passage itself clearly employs symbolism. In 21:9, the angel tells John he is about to show him Bride (which is a symbol of the church of Christ). Then in 21:10, John sees the NJ. The Bride is the NJ; that is, the bride is symbolized by this “city.”

Third, some of the details in this vision refer to details in other passages that are clearly symbolic. For example, the foundation stones of the city are adorned with precious stones. These stones probably refer back to the precious stones that covered the breastplate of the Old Testament high priest (Ex.28:25-31). The stones represented (symbolized) the 12 tribes of Israel, for whom the high priest interceded. So it is reasonable to believe that the precious stones in this vision symbolize something about God’s eternal kingdom (more on this later).

Fourth, it is difficult to make rational sense of some of the details in this description if we take them literally. For example, are we to believe that the mammoth pearls actually came from super-mammoth oysters? Or is it more likely that pearls symbolize something about God’s eternal kingdom (more on this later)?

So we should view this vision as primarily symbolic. With this in mind, let’s look more closely at these symbols and consider the glorious literal realities that they convey...

The glory of God’s eternal kingdom

Re-read 21:10,11. John says that what struck him most about his vision was that the NJ had “the glory of God.” “Glory” means awesomeness, majesty. It connotes (among other things) radiant beauty, which is why John says that the city was like a very rare jewel. This is evidently the point of the other symbol – “a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2). We commonly speak of the appearance of brides as “radiantly beautiful.” Consider how the “exterior” of the NJ will be full of God’s glory in this sense...

It will be glorious because it will be populated by all of God’s people from all ages. The 12 gates evidently represent the 12 tribes of Israel, from whom came the people of God in the Old Testament. The 12 foundation stones evidently represent the 12 apostles, from whom came the church – all who believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

How awesome will it to see God’s people in their new glorified bodies! People are struck to the ground by the awesomeness – but a believer’s body will evidently be far more glorious than an angel’s! And what will it be like to see all of these glorified people?

How awesome it will be to interact with glorified believers! Think about having a long conversation with believers you’ve only read about – e.g., Noah, Moses, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Spurgeon, etc. Think about being reunited with believing friends and family members (EXAMPLES). Think about meeting believers who were comparatively unknown here on earth, but who will be super-celebrities in heaven because of their faithfulness.

It will be glorious because it will be full of the beauty of God’s perfected creation. The precious stones may symbolize the glorious beauty of God’s people, but they may symbolize the natural beauty of God’s creative work. After all, that is what precious stones are! And the streets of pure, transparent gold probably symbolize the same thing. Not only will God’s people be gloriously beautiful, but the environment in which they live will also be crafted by God to be gloriously beautiful beyond anything we have ever seen!

How awesome will it be to see and visit rivers, oceans, mountains, valleys, etc. in perfect pristine beauty, completely unsullied by pollution, acid rain, etc.! How awesome will it be to see (and possibly visit) other unfallen planets, solar systems, galaxies, etc.?

It will be glorious because it will be full of human cultural and aesthetic excellence. What is the “glory and honor” that people bring into the NJ (21:24,26)? It is not the beauty of God’s creation; it is “their glory... the glory and honor of the nations.” In other words, it is what the people in heaven create for the sheer joy of it, and to share with others for their enjoyment.

How awesome will it be to experience music, art, drama, literature – crafted by glorified people who can spend decades/centuries perfecting their work? Think of your very best moments in these areas (e.g., ME READING LORD OF THE RINGS THE FIRST TIME) – and then multiply them exponentially in number and degree! Think of having the time and ability to learn these crafts (if you want to), and then creating your own masterpieces to share for others’ enjoyment!

How awesome will be to enjoy others’ masterpieces of architecture, furniture, parks, gardens, animal husbandry, etc.! How awesome to be able to create these yourself!

It will be glorious because it will be utterly secure. This is what the height of the walls conveys (21:17). This is why John says that the gates will never be closed (21:25). This is why he emphasizes that no enemy of God will ever enter it (21:27).

Imagine being able to enjoy all of the above with absolutely no fear of external enemies – either human (war, terrorism, siege, blockades, bullies, etc.) or demonic (accusation, oppression, deception)!

Imagine being able to enjoy all of the above with absolutely no fear of personal enemies – sickness, death, personal tragedy or, relational breakdown, psychological depression/anxiety, etc.!

The above four are incredible gifts of glory that God’s people will enjoy for all eternity. But they are not the best part. Most of all, heaven will be glorious because it will be pervaded by God’s glorious presence.

This is probably why the “holy city” is described as a mammoth cube (21:16). I agree with D. A. Carson’s explanation: “The cube is symbolic: there is only one cube in the Old Testament, and that is the Most Holy Place of the temple, where only the (high) priest could enter once a year, bearing blood for his own sins and for the sins of the people. Now the entire city is the Most Holy Place: in the consummation all of God’s people are perennially in the unshielded splendor of his glorious presence.” This is why there is no need for a temple to enshrine God’s presence (21:22). The Lord and Jesus are its temple – their full presence is accessible to everyone everywhere at every time.

This is why there is no need for (not no existence of) sun or moon (21:23). This may mean that the glorious presence of the Lord and Jesus will physically illuminate heaven (as with Jesus in Matt.17:2). Or this may mean that the glorious truth of the Lord and Jesus will provide full spiritual illumination for all inhabitants (which explains 21:24a). Or it may mean both!

This truth – that heaven will be pervaded by God’s glorious presence – is at the heart of John’s description of NJ’s “interior.” We will explore what it means in more detail NEXT WEEK.

So what?

But we need to use our remaining time to ask the question we’ve been asking about all of Revelation’s visions of the future: “So what?” What personal relevance does God’s eternal kingdom have for you, today, in your situation? How should this affect the decisions you make and how you live your life? I can suggest a couple of answers...

First, you should do whatever is necessary to gain entry into God’s eternal kingdom. Certainly there can be no more important implication than this! To be allowed entry would be the greatest blessing you could ever have. And to be denied entry would be the greatest tragedy imaginable.

21:27 supplies the answer: “only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” can enter. This is figure of speech referring to those who have received God’s forgiveness through Jesus’ death for their sins. That’s why Jesus is referred to here as “the Lamb” – He is the perfect Substitute, the One who took the judgment for our sins. The moment you personally entrust yourself to Jesus as your Substitute, God guarantees your entry into His eternal kingdom. But you have to make this decision before Jesus returns or you die (Heb. 97). Have you done this?

Second, if you focus on your inheritance in God’s kingdom, you will have greater resilience in adversity. This is the main pastoral reason for the book of Revelation! The recipients were suffering horrible persecution, and need to persevere in faithfulness to Jesus. What is the main incentive? That Jesus is coming back to usher them into His eternal kingdom.

Read 2Cor.5:16-18 (NLT). Paul suffered terrible adversity – yet he kept going with a positive attitude. This was not because he had an iron will and/or was a natural optimist. He says it was because he “fixed his gaze” on different aspects of God’s eternal kingdom that he knew he would inherit. Skopeo means to intentionally focus on. It implies that other things clamor for our attention, but we make a decision to focus on these things instead. As we do this, God “shrinks” our present sufferings down to size and ignites a hope within us me that keeps us going.

If you’ve ever looked forward to going on vacation, you know how this principle operates. You are better able to handle the circumstantial hassles because you know that soon you will be out of here, enjoying your vacation!

If you are like me, you naturally focus on your current, tangible adversities. And, like me, you know that doing this produces anxiety, depression, desire to medicate and escape, etc. How can we cultivate a focus on our eternal destiny? What are some practical ways that have helped you to do this?

Read passages like Rev. 21,22 regularly. Read the New Testament books with an eye for what they teach about heaven. Memorize shorter passages.

Ask God to make this hope more “real” to you (Eph.1:18).

Talk about heaven with other Christian friends. Sharing what you know strengthens your focus. Being informed and reminded by others does, too.

Read quality Christian books about heaven (EXAMPLES).

When suffering, choose to recall the promise of heaven, view it as a “birth-pang” that brings you one step closer to it, and thank God by faith.

When enjoying a blessing, choose to view it as a foretaste of something much better in heaven.

Invest in things that will last to eternity (Matt.6 principle): generosity; people; etc.

D. A. Carson, For the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), reading for December 30.