Try out the new BibleStudyTools.com. Click here!

Revelation 21:2

Then I, John, saw the holy city
This is one of five places in the book of Revelation where John refers to himself by name (Rev. Rev. 1:1+, Rev. 1:4+, Rev. 1:9+; Rev. 21:2+; Rev. 22:8+). See Authorship. The holy city is also called the holy Jerusalem (Rev. Rev. 21:10+). Throughout Scripture, Jerusalem is considered holy, although at times she plays the harlot (Isa. Isa. 1:21). Jerusalem is called the “city of the great King” (Ps. Ps. 48:2), “city of God” (Ps. Ps. 87:3), “the faithful city” (Isa. Isa. 1:21), and the “holy city” (Isa. Isa. 52:1). Joel predicted, concerning her final state: “Jerusalem shall be holy, and no aliens shall ever pass through her again” (Joel Joel 3:17). Anyone who takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy will have his part in the holy city taken away (Rev. Rev. 22:19+).

New Jerusalem
New is καινὴν [kainēn] : new in quality, “by way of contrast with the old or obsolete better, superior, different . . . Substantivally new (and better) one.”1 Although the earthly Jerusalem had been restored for the Millennial Kingdom in accordance with God’s word (e.g., Isa. Isa. 62:1), it is not the ultimate city sought by those who follow Jesus. In a similar way to which the Temple on earth corresponds to a greater reality in heaven , the earthly Jerusalem will eventually be replaced by the New Jerusalem. Unlike the earthly Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem has never been subject to destruction or desolation. Nor has it ever needed watchmen on its walls to pray for its protection and reestablishment (Isa. Isa. 62:6). Paul compared the earthly Jerusalem with the “Jerusalem above” when teaching of the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old (Gal. Gal. 4:24-26). Jesus called the New Jerusalem “the city of My God” and promised the overcomer that He would write upon him the name of the city (Rev. Rev. 3:12+). The New Jerusalem is the ultimate destination of all the saints. Those who follow Jesus have no continuing city on earth, but ultimately seek the one to come, the New Jerusalem (Heb. Heb. 13:14).

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. (Heb. Heb. 12:22-24)

Again, we meet with the tendency of many interpreters to take the description of the city as being symbolic of some deep spiritual truth rather than the description of a literal city which God has prepared as the ultimate dwelling place for the faithful in their glorified existence beyond this life (John John 14:2-3). One danger of taking the description of the New Jerusalem as symbolism is the flexibility it affords for molding its meaning in accord with the desire of the interpreter. Symbolic interpretation has often been a useful tool of cults:

A symbolical New Jerusalem is crucial to at least three major cults—Christian Science, Mormonism, and the Swedenborgians. Christian Science symbolizes almost every detail of the New Jerusalem in order to fit it into the cult’s teachings. . . . Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, attempted to establish the symbolized New Jerusalem (“Zion”) in the State of Missouri. . . . The Swedenborgians . . . call themselves the Church of the New Jerusalem. Founder Swedenborg wrote voluminously, and his commentary on the book of Revelation [states] . . . “By the twelve thousand furlongs [in Rev. Rev. 21:16+] are signified all the goods and truths of that church.”2

In order to prevent interpreters from waxing allegorical in their approach to the New Jerusalem, John is given a tour of the city by an angel who carefully measures its physical dimensions. The scene is reminiscent of the passage in Ezekiel where an angel (“man”) shows Ezekiel the Millennial Temple and provides detailed measurements concerning its physical layout (Eze. Eze. 40:3 ff). In both Ezekiel and here, the prophets behold structures vastly different than anything in history. Because of this, many are reluctant to take the details in a literal fashion and reduce the passages to teaching general spiritual principles.

These dimensions [of the city] should not be interpreted as providing architectural information about the city. Rather, we should think of them as theologically symbolic of the fulfillment of all God’s promises.3

One can wonder only how 12,000 stadia (Rev. Rev. 21:16+) and 144 cubits (Rev. Rev. 21:17+) could convey great “spiritual truths” or “theological insights!” If this were true, we should thank God that He chose not to give us truly important information, such as the requirements of salvation, in similar “theological symbolism” as these interpreters assume to be His mode of communication here! They are at a loss to explain the meaning of the details and why God would indicate that measurements be taken of immaterial objects. Those bold enough to hazard a guess at the symbolical meaning of the measurements have little agreement as to the insights of great magnitude and import which they purportedly represent. As is always the case with symbolic interpretation, the meaning of the text is rendered unknowable.

Unwilling to take the language of Scripture at face value, many seek for some hidden meaning behind John’s description. But if the words do not mean what they say, who has the authority to say what they do mean? Abandoning the literal meaning of the text leads only to baseless, groundless, futile speculation.4

If God gave these two chapters in symbolic form, then we dare say that man should not be held responsible for understanding their contents, for they mean whatever an interpreter wants them to mean! Instead, we believe the measurements are literal and the act of measuring is intended to indicate the physical reality of what is presented in the vision. Thus, the description of the New Jerusalem concerns a real, physical city. Tan identifies numerous reasons for taking the city literally:

First, . . . all the elements of an actual city—dimensions, foundations, walls, gates, streets—are indicated. . . . Second, although the apostle John sees this prophecy in a vision, he certainly does not resort to imagination nor indulge in exaggeration. . . . The fact that John records non-earthly things such as gate-sized pearls proves that he does not altar the form of the prophecy for the sake of reader comprehension. Third , . . . In the account of the New Jerusalem . . . the same angel [who identified the Harlot of Rev. Rev. 17:1+ as a symbol ( Rev. Rev. 17:18+ )] offers not a word or clue regarding its possible symbolism. Fourth, in the account of the New Jerusalem, the inhabitants of the city are differentiated from the city itself. If the New Jerusalem symbolizes the church, and its inhabitants are church members, how could the church separate from itself. Fifth, the patriarch Abraham . . . “looked for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. Heb. 11:10). Moreover, the early Hebrew Christians were assured of their positional rights “unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. Heb. 12:22). And our Lord promises the disciples, “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (John John 14:3). This hope of a city promised to so many people down the ages surely cannot be a symbol. Sixth, an actual, material city in eternity is proper and logical because of the constitution of the redeemed who will be in resurrected bodies throughout eternity. A resurrected body without any material point of reference would be highly unsatisfactory. Seventh, . . . a literal, material New Jerusalem . . . comes naturally and logically to the thinking of most uncritical laymen.5

We believe the approach which God intends is literal interpretation with spiritual application: every detail is to be taken literally, but also provides symbolism for spiritual learning, meditation, and application. See Interpreting Symbols.

coming down
Coming down is καταβαίνουσαν [katabainousan] , present tense: while coming down. John saw the city as it was in the process of descending. John sees the city descend in two separate visions. Here, he sees the New Jerusalem as part of the overall scene describing the newly recreated order. A few verses later, an angel gives John a detailed tour of the city which comprises the last half of the chapter (Rev. Rev. 21:9-27+).

prepared as a bride
Prepared is ἡτοιμασμένην [hētoimasmenēn] , perfect passive participle: having been prepared. The passive form of the participle indicates the bride had no part in her preparation. This is because the bride is inanimate: a city. This bride contrasts with the bride mentioned in Revelation Rev. 19:7+ who “made herself ready”, ἡτοίμασεν ἑαυτὴν [hētoimasen heautēn] . The bride at the marriage of the Lamb participated in her readiness—indicating she is made up of living beings: the saints who had previously been resurrected at the Rapture. See Church Betrothed to Christ. Here, the bride is an inanimate city which is prepared by God:

In My Father’s house are many mansions [dwelling places]; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John John 14:2-3) [emphasis added]

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb. Heb. 11:8-10) [emphasis added]

Bride is νύμφην [nymphēn] , “a young woman engaged.”6 “It can also be the newly married woman.”7 In Revelation Rev. 19:7+, bride is γυνὴ [gynē] , meaning “woman.” There, her status as a bride was derived from the context. The two terms are made equivalent in Revelation Rev. 21:9+ where John is shown “the bride, the Lamb’s wife”: τὴν νύμφην τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ ἀρνῖου [tēn nymphēn tēn gynaika tou arniou] , the bride, the woman of the Lamb. At the time of the marriage of the Lamb (Rev. Rev. 19:7+), the OT saints had not yet been raised (Dan. Dan. 12:2; Isa. Isa. 26:19) and the earthly Jerusalem suffered under the trampling of the Gentiles (Rev. Rev. 11:2+). In the previous chapter, during the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. Rev. 20:4-6+), all the saints had been raised and the earthly Jerusalem restored in glory for one thousand years. Then the first heaven and earth passed away and a new order was created. The NT teaching of the Church Betrothed to Christ , the Lamb’s wife at the marriage (Rev. Rev. 19:7+), is now joined with the OT passages which indicate that Israel is married to Jehovah and Jerusalem is married to God . The New Jerusalem represents the ultimate consummation of the varied wedding motifs where all the people of God inhabit a city enjoying intimate communion with God face-to-face (Rev. Rev. 22:4+).

Without the saints, whose home and residence it is, it would not be the Lamb’s Wife; and yet it is the Lamb’s Wife in a sense which does not exclude the foundations, walls, gates, streets and constructions which contribute to make it a city. Mere edifices and avenues do not make a city; neither does a mere congregation or multitude of people make a city. You cannot have a living city without people to inhabit it and you cannot have a city without the edifices and avenues arranged in some fixed shape for the accommodation of those who make up its population. It is the two together, and the order in which the parts are severally disposed, the animate with the inanimate, which constitute a city.8

adorned for her husband
Adorned is κεκοσμημένην [kekosmēmenēn] , perfect passive participle: having been decorated. Mat. 12:44; Luke Luke 11:25, and of trimming lamps, Mtt. Mat. 25:7.”9 Whereas the bride at the marriage of the Lamb wears linen for her covering (Rev. Rev. 19:8+), the city wears the glory of God and precious stones (Rev. Rev. 21:11+). The garments of the city are not given as clothing, nor related to righteousness, because the city is inanimate. God is her husband because it is He who restores her and has promised that she would rejoice as a bride. Although He had adorned the earthly Jerusalem as a beautiful woman, she played the harlot (Eze. Eze. 16:1-16). Nevertheless, He promised that one day Jerusalem would wear beautiful garments again, for she would be holy and no unclean thing would come into her (Isa. Isa. 52:1). See Jerusalem Married to God.

Notes

1 Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 212.

2 Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Dallas, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1993), 288-289.

3 Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 200.

4 John MacArthur, Revelation 12-22 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2000), Rev. 21:12.

5 Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, 289-292.

6 Friberg, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 273.

7 Frederick William Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 545.

8 J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 496.

9 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, IL: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), G2885.

Read Revelation 21:2