As a boy, the only time I remember hearing this passage about the New Jerusalem was at funerals. I remember someone saying that it is about the closest thing in the Bible to a photograph of heaven: golden streets, people flying around and picking fruit off trees, and plucking their harps day and night.
I must say that the golden streets were not much of an attraction to a seven-year-old boy whose greatest joy was playing in a very dirty sandbox all day. And the idea of eating fruit off a tree was not nearly as appealing as eating a triple decker hot fudge sundae from Dairy Queen — the kind with peanuts in the hot fudge and a cherry on top.
As I have grown older, however, I have developed a different view of this lovely vision which is the climax of the Bible. On the negative side, I am convinced that these closing chapters of Revelation are not simply a description of heaven. On the positive side, I see now that the writer, John, uses the images of a city to describe the community of the church.
You see, nearly all the symbols and images in Revelation 21 Revelation 22 are symbols and images of community. John has used them to create a word-picture of what the church is like amidst the other communities of the earth. In a sense, the passage is a blueprint for the life of the church.
The passage claims that when the church lives from day to day in the way pictured here, it is a light by which all the nations can walk. In this sense, the passage is a penetrating criticism of the way we do things in the church and of the way we do things in human communities generally. It offers a model for the reconstruction of the way in which peoples live together on the earth, in communities large and small.
This way of thinking about the passage rests on two striking things in the text itself. (1) The city is described as the “bride,” “the wife of the lamb.” In the Bible, this image is frequently employed as a symbol of community. It is a way of speaking about the people of God.
(2) The city comes down from heaven. John has been to heaven and has seen the great throne of glory (Revelation 4), but the city of Revelation 21 Revelation 22 comes down from heaven to earth. This is a community which exists amidst the other communities of the earth.
I do not have time to talk about all of the images which appear in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. But I do want to lift up several key symbols and suggest how they apply to the life of the church.
Notice, first, that the city is surrounded by a great, high wall. During the period of the walled cities in the ancient world, a wall was a means of security and protection. And look at how high this wall is — one hundred and forty-four cubits. That is almost forty stories tall. It would be unbelievable in the ancient world to have a wall this high. Nothing could get over it. How much safer could one feel?
The number one hundred forty-four is a clue that this is not a physical wall. For one hundred forty-four is the square of the number twelve, and among Jewish and Christian people of the first century, the number twelve was a symbol for the community itself. The means of security is participation in community. And the fact that the number is squared is an intensification. This is a vast and closely-knit community.
Many of the walled cities had only two entrances — one about the size of the average single-car garage door (for wagons and horses) and one about the size of a human body (so that only one person at a time could slither through). But this city has twelve gates: three on a side, so that the city is completely accessible from all directions. And the gates are never shut.
The point is that real security is not found in walls which keep people out, but is found in open gates which let people in. The word we might use for it today is “inclusive.” Inclusivity is a means to lasting security and peace.
The city itself is foursquare. Now, if we had been working our way through the book of Revelation, we would know by now that the number four is a number for holiness, for the presence of God. And this city is foursquare not only in length and breadth, but in height as well. It is a perfect cube.
Once again, the listener who is hearing with the ears of the Hebrew Bible will hear this image as the holy of holies. That place in the temple was twenty cubits by twenty cubits by twenty cubits, a place which reminded the people that the world is charged by the presence of God. Its very being represented for the people God’s unmerited, unreserved love for the world and testified to God’s will for justice (i.e. right relationships) throughout the earth.
Can you feel that when you drive onto the parking lot? Can you sense it when you step into the sanctuary? Does it surge into you when you take the hand of a sister or brother in the household of faith? Do the decisions of your board and the way you spend your budget bespeak unmerited love for all and right relationships in every situation?
And look at the size of this place — twelve thousand stadia! That is one thousand five hundred miles on each side, the same as a territory which extends from Canada to New Orleans, from St. Louis to San Francisco. Such literal calculations, of course, are beside the point, because the number twelve thousand is a symbol.
The number twelve (again) is a representation of the community, and it is multiplied by a thousand which in the ancient world was a way of saying something was big beyond belief. So to say the city is twelve thousand stadia is to say that it is big enough to include the whole people of God. Indeed, this sanctuary is so large that it will seat every person who ever lives.
We who work in the church need this reminder. Have you ever called a committee meeting and gone to the church building and unlocked the door and turned on the lights and waited … and waited … and waited? I sit at home and contemplate the size of the world’s needs and I look at the small change in my pocket. We need to be reminded that we are part of a community whose sanctuary measures twelve thousand stadia in size.
The city itself is made of gold. But did you notice something strange about this gold? It is transparent as glass! That is, it has been transformed. Extremely valuable, gold was a foundation of monetary life in the ancient world, even as it is today. What do people want to do with gold? They want to collect it. I do not mean to make John out as a first-century Marxist, but he recognizes that gold corrupts human community. People become so obsessed with collecting it that they will hoard, cheat, exploit and rob to get it.
In John’s visionary community, the gold has lost this corrupting power because it is no longer gold. It is clear as glass. The life of this community is as valuable as the gold of the old world, but the community itself is not beholden to gold as its standard of value nor is it corrupted by the desire to load up with gold. Instead, the standard of value here is the infinite love of God for every created thing.
The foundation of the city is lined with jewels, all the way from jasper to amethyst. Gaudy. Almost tasteless. But there may be a little first-century joke here. According to some scholars, these stones represent the signs of the zodiac. Then, as now, some people in the ancient world believed that then fate was programmed by the stars. And where the data met the printout, there was nothing they could do about it.
“Fate,” they called it. Very negative. The goal of life for many ancient people was just to learn to accept their fates without flinching. “Grit your teeth and bear it.” No wonder stoicism was one of the most popular approaches to life in those days.
Yet John lists these stones in the exact opposite order in which they were found in the lists of the stars. Thus, John claims that in the church, the way of life epitomized by fate — with all its emphasis on negativity and bearing up — is turned upside down. Because of the presence of the living God in the world, life is not a burden to be borne but a gift to be received.
There is no temple here. There is no need of an institution to keep the memory and the signs of God alive in the community. Think of it: no more board meetings, no stewardship drives, no pussyfooting around sensitive issues, no twisting arms to get youth group sponsors, no property committee! Of course, there is no need for clergy, either — so I would be out of a job — but the point is that the life of the community itself keeps alive the sense of the presence of God in the world.
Through the middle of the city runs the river of the water of life. This is a reference to baptism, and it recalls the rivers of the Garden of Eden and Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple. Do you remember it? Ezekiel saw the new temple in the city of Jerusalem on a high mountain. Out of the temple, a little trickle of water starts to run. Down it goes, across the floor of the temple, into the street, out of the gates of the city and through the desert towards the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea.
As it passes through the desert, the brittle, parched ground begins to become soft and workable. Tiny green grass begins to grow, and then shrubs and bushes and trees. When the trickle gets to the Dead Sea, the sea itself begins to get fresh. First just a tiny pocket of clear water, and then more and then more, and then alongside the sea, reeds and trees and shade. And in the water, fish — tiny minnows, bluegill, and bass! Ezekiel doesn’t say it, but I can only imagine that in his mind, the prophet saw a bass boat heading into the sea in the misty dawn.
The point? Baptism is like this in human life. We come down to the waters of baptism dead and hard, and we emerge fresh and alive. We who were barren become generative and are given the power to bring forth. And the life of the church is this way in the world: its witness to the unending love of God causes the parched, brittle ground to become fresh and alive.
On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, and the tree is in bloom all year. The word “fruit” here may be a reference to the lives of the members of the community. They witness to God in everything they do, so that they “bear fruit” every day they live.
The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Do you get it? The witness of the church is a witness of people and groups and nations being brought together. The Department of Defense is replaced by the Department of Community.
And the servants shall serve God. Yes, of course — the whole community serves God, but this is followed by a strange statement. “And they shall reign forever.” The servants will be rulers. Now this sounds pretty good, but in this community, everyone is a ruler.
William Hannah is fond of saying that in God’s house, everyone is a king or a queen. “King Ronald.” I rather like the sound of it. But if everyone is a ruler, then how do the rulers rule? According to John, the same persons who are called rulers are also called servants, and they rule by serving the living God. They exercise power by giving themselves for others.
We see this city from time to time amidst the cities of the world. I remember one occasion when it appeared rather vividly. It was on Monument Circle in Indianapolis. As you can gather from its name, Monument Circle is a traffic circle around a monument. The monument itself stands about ten stories high and is the center of the city. It memorializes those soldiers and sailors who died in the Civil War.
It was August and the temperature was reaching toward 100 degrees in the 90 percent humidity. Women from Church Women United were converging on the circle from the four streets which feed into it. Most of the women were old, and many of them were so old they couldn’t stand by themselves but had to lean on aluminum walkers, and one was so gnarled that she had to be strapped into a wheelchair just to stay upright.
Around the monument they circled, each one holding a banner on which they had put something they did not want to lose in a nuclear war. Some banners were embroidered, some were felt appliques, some were just magic marker on old dish towels. A red geranium. The outline of a house. The face of a grandchild. And on one, a drawing of her own tombstone.
They were old women. Wrinkled. Gnarled. Tottering. Some of them living off of nothing more than social security. Some of them having to hold each other up. But there they were, a city within the city. I’ll wager Christ has never had a more beautiful bride.

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