What Do the Two Cities in Revelation Represent?
All too often it seems like we look at Revelation as a book telling us what the end of the world will be like. We spend time trying to map the details of John’s visions to current events. But I believe when we do that, we miss the real reason Revelation was written.
Revelation was written to believers near the end of the first century. And it was written to encourage and challenge them amidst the difficulties they were facing at that time, not to tell them what the distant future held.
As we read the visions in Revelation, we will find two cities mentioned by name: Babylon and Jerusalem. This article will look at these two cities, the central place they have in Revelation, and the relevance they had for those first century churches, as well as us today.
Some Background on Revelation
Revelation was written by John, often thought to be the apostle John, in the latter part of the first century. It was written to seven churches in the province of Asia, what is today Turkey. And it is apparent that there was some opposition to Christianity at that time. John identifies himself as their companion in suffering and endurance, and at Patmos (a Roman prison colony) because of his stand for God (Rev. 1:9).
The individual letters he includes for the seven churches (Rev 2:1-3:22) indicate that at least some of them were suffering for their faith. But some of these churches also seemed guilty of compromising with the world around them.
I do not believe that the message Jesus gave John to pass on to these seven churches was primarily about the distant future. That would have done little to help them in what they were currently experiencing. Rather, I believe it was relevant for their day, dealing with the issues they were currently facing. And I believe that it is also relevant for churches and believers today who are facing many of the same issues. It is written to encourage those who are faithful and suffering because of their faithfulness. And it is written to challenge those who are compromising their faith to be able to better fit into the world around them.
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Babylon was the capital city of a mighty empire during a part of the Old Testament period and was responsible for the final destruction of the Jewish kingdom of Judah. Babylon was frequently mentioned by the Old Testament prophets. Some wrote about the coming destruction of Judah at the hands of Babylon. But more common was the condemnation of Babylon for what she had done. Babylon receives more condemnation in the prophetic writings than any other foreign nation.
In Revelation, Babylon gets passing mention in 14:8 and 16:19 but becomes the primary focus of chapters 17 and 18. In these chapters, Babylon is described as a woman, the mother of prostitutes and drunk on the blood of the saints. Babylon is further described as being at the center of the world’s commerce and exercising great power in the world.
But these chapters, rather than exalting Babylon, are written to describe her doom. Babylon is facing destruction – complete and utter ruin. Babylon will fall to rise no more. Her fall will negatively impact much of the world that depended on her for their livelihood and they will mourn her passing.
But God’s people are told to come out from her, to not share in her sins, or in her destruction (Rev. 18:4). And we are told to rejoice over her punishment because of what she has done to us (Rev. 18:20). While Babylon was at the center of the world, she was the enemy of God’s people.
The second city mentioned in Revelation is New Jerusalem which occupies the last two chapters of the book. John sees this city descending from heaven and we can imagine it coming to rest on the new earth. New Jerusalem is described as a cube that was 1,400 miles in length, width, and height. It has twelve foundations and twelve pearl gates and streets of gold. There are many other descriptive terms used for this city, including those that describe God’s presence and activity within the city as well as the river and tree of life.
While it is popular among many I know to view this as a physical city, at the beginning of the vision it is identified as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2, 9). Thus, it would appear not to be a literal city but rather the glorified church as Christ’s bride. I believe that the New Jerusalem represents all of God’s people throughout the ages. And that the vision of the New Jerusalem is not just a vision of the future. The New Jerusalem is in existence now, and when an individual comes to faith, they become a part of this holy city.
In this description of the New Jerusalem there are three reference to the nations (Rev. 21:24, 26; 22:2) that make much more sense when the city is viewed as a present reality. The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the city; the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it; and the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. This city is distinct from the world, yet it is interacting with it, something that would not seem possible after the world is judged and destroyed.
Those in the city walk in the light of the Lord and there is no night in the city. Its gates are always open, but only the pure and holy can enter. The water of life that Jesus promised to the woman at the well (John 4:14) flows out of the city. And access to the tree of life from Genesis 2-3 is restored to us. These all describe the present reality for God’s people.
Babylon Will Fall and Jerusalem Will Be Exalted
Revelation was written to encourage those who were suffering for their faith, and to warn those who were compromising their faith in order to better fit into their culture. John’s message to these churches is that the forces of spiritual evil that they are facing may seem to be in control. But, in the end, they are not. Babylon, representing the world around them, is strong. But God is stronger still. And Babylon will fall, along with all who are connected with her. Compromise with Babylon will only lead to sharing in her punishment.
Those who remain faithful will experience suffering at the hands of Babylon. But they are a part of a city that is even greater – a city that will be victorious over Babylon and all she represents. They are encouraged to walk in the light of the one on Jerusalem’s throne and to endure faithfully. All is not as it seems. God is in control and working everything out according to his intended purpose.
As believers today, we are faced with much the same choices as these seven churches that Revelation was originally addressed to. We live in a world that is at odds with God and his people. A world that is represented by Babylon, and a redeemed people represented by New Jerusalem. We are challenged to be faithful to our calling regardless of the pressure applied by the world; to not compromise our faith in order to pacify the opposition. We are encouraged to come out of Babylon and enter New Jerusalem, to walk by the light of God that fills the city, and to partake of the river of the water of life. The future is not in Babylon. It is in New Jerusalem.
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Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.
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