The book of Revelation reaches its conclusion following the destruction of the Beast, the False Prophet, the Dragon, Death, and Hades in chapters nineteen and twenty. The final vision of the completion of God’s healing work in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two leaves us with the fundamental contrast of the book: The spiritual forces of evil are gone, they are not part of the fulfilled city; New Jerusalem, and the spiritual forces of good are ever-present.
Even in the end, though, things are left ambiguous about the human element of the final scene. The book makes it clear what kind of person will be at home in the New Jerusalem—one who follows the Lamb’s path of persevering love. And we are told numerous times what kind of person will not be at home there—one who trusts in the Dragon and follows the ways of domination. What is ambiguous is what happens after the Dragon is gone. Shockingly, the very kings of the earth who throughout the book symbolize humanity at its most hostile to the Lamb are present in New Jerusalem. The nations—allied with the Dragon as they were—find healing in New Jerusalem. So, we don’t know precisely who will be there—some of the Christians mentioned in chapters two and three might not; the kings of the earth will be. It is not about religious affiliation. It is about the ultimate response to the Lamb’s call.
Probably the best way to understand the vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and the statement that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (21:1) is that John reports the social and spiritual healing of the world we live in. We read a few verses later that God is “making all things new” (21:5)—not making all new things. The process of the plagues turns out to be not the total destruction of the physical world but the destruction of the destroyers of the earth (i.e., the Dragon, et al—the spiritual dynamic of domination).
Throughout the book we have been told about various moments of worship in the midst of the time of tribulation that characterizes the “three and a half years” of human historical existence. These worship moments point ahead to this vision of life lived in the presence of God and the Lamb—a kind of constant worship.
So, when the destroyers of the earth are destroyed the earth is renewed, “made new,” and humanity is renewed, “made new,” with it. The holy city, New Jerusalem, “comes down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride” (21:2)—alluding back to the bride in chapter nineteen, which is the same as the multitude beyond counting in chapter seven. That is, the fruit of the renewed earth is providing a home for a healed humanity in number beyond counting.
The connection between healed humanity and God is direct, immediate, and life giving. That “the first things have passed away” (21:4) is a reference not to the physical world but to the dynamics of domination that characterized human life during the three and a half years. The new world is, we could say, the old world with the powers of domination excluded—a place where tears, idolatry, and death dealing are no more.
The One on the throne utters these words of healing and assurance—words that are “trustworthy and true” (21:5). For John, this is one more statement of the contrast between the ways of the true God and the Lamb and the ways of the Dragon and his minions. John challenges his readers on the level of fundamental disposition. Whose words do you believe are “trustworthy and true”? Whose words actually empower healing and transformation? Too often, in John’s views, the words of the Empire and its agents have been seen as trustworthy, even by those within the congregations of chapters two and three. But it all comes down to this—do you trust that New Jerusalem is our true end as human beings, or is it Babylon?
This passage ends with a reminder of the contrast Revelation centers on. There is the path of “conquering” that involves telling the truth, courageously resisting the domination system, trusting in the visions of worship that emphasize that God and the Lamb are worthy of praise, and seeking to live as children of God. And there is the path of trusting in Dragon, a path that ultimately proves to be the path of cowardice, faithlessness, violence, and dishonesty. John has tried to make this contrast clear throughout the book, because in the end one must choose sides—either death or life.
The same angel who showed John the fall of Babylon (17:1) now returns to show him the opposite of Babylon, New Jerusalem. Given the close parallels in how these two cities are introduced, as well as scattered parallels and contrasts between them in the details, we are meant to see that in some sense New Jerusalem is what Babylon should have been.
The problem is not that human beings live in cities. The outcome of human project here is an urban outcome. The problem is when cities become organized for injustice. Since we are not told that Babylon is destroyed in the same way as the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet, it may not be totally farfetched to imagine that Babylon itself actually is transformed into New Jerusalem. Regardless of how we think about the precise relationship between the two, clearly there is some continuity between them. The outcome of God’s work of healing as presented in Revelation is the healing of the nations, of the kings of the earth, and of the entire social and political dynamics of human life—not to mention of the human relationship with the rest of creation.
This renewed city is portrayed in terms of glittering jewels (21:9), not meant to be taken literally but as an intended statement about how blessed and beautiful this city will be. It is “the bride of the Lamb”—that is, the multitude who has been created from the followers of the Lamb. This is in contrast with the gaudy Harlot of chapter seventeen. Even more, though, it is a positive affirmation of the status and impressive character of those who have “conquered” through their faithful witness—again underscoring the importance of that witness.
To reemphasize the point about the city actually being a community of people, most directly a community of the multitude of those following the Lamb’s way mentioned in chapter seven, John notes that the city has twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. The twelve tribes actually were named back in chapter seven as another way of designating the countless multitude (7:5-9). Now John continues with the same imagery but with a more explicit statement of continuity between the tribes and the apostles—pointing back to the description at 15:2-3 of “those who had conquered the Beast” singing the “song of Moses, the servant of God, and the Lamb” (note “song” is singular).
The description of the city in 21:15-21 expands on its beauty, couched in terms of precious jewels along with a peculiar reference to “pure gold, transparent as glass” (21:21). John also makes a point of telling how the angel that has brought him to this city carefully “measured the city with his rod” (21:16). The city turns out to be a perfect cube—1,500 miles in each direction, surely meant to convey the city’s enormous size. Even more, John’s readers would surely recognize the allusion to the holy of holies in the temple, that was also a cube (see also the description of the temple in Ezekiel 40–48). We will learn in a moment that indeed the sensibility of the holy of holies—in the Old Testament temple accessible only to a very few elite priests as the carefully segregated presence of God in the world—has been turned on its head.
John’s next statement is self-contradictory if read straightforwardly—“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). He means he did not see a temple as a building but instead the true temple is revealed as God and the Lamb themselves. This is an enormously suggestive statement on several levels.
Most of not all of the major cities in the Roman Empire (including the seven cities mentioned in chapters two and three) had temples devoted to various deities. By now, they all ultimately served the civil religion of the Roman Empire and the deification of the emperor. So one point is that New Jerusalem is utterly different from the Empire’s cities. There is no emperor worship here. To the contrary, another example of John’s insistence that Caesar and God are direct rivals requiring a clear choice by his readers, “the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb,” meaning among other things, instead of the various temples scattered throughout the Empire.
In relation to the biblical tradition, the lack of a temple building is not a repudiation of Israel’s past. The temple was only ever meant to be a symbol of God’s presence. Now, the reality behind the temple is present without limitation. There is no need for a physical representation of God’s presence on earth, as never before fully recognized, now it is clear that God is present, God is the temple.
At the same time, this image of a lack of a temple building also could be seen as a critique of the what the temple became in Israel, a politically-shaped means of limiting access to God in ways that enhanced human authority in the community. There is no justification for that now. It is clear that God repudiates human hierarchies—even within Israel when Israel imitates Empire’s ways of power-over.
To reinforce the anti-hierarchical message, we are told that the temple is God the Almighty and the Lamb. The Lamb indeed is being exalted here, but even more importantly for John’s message, God is being defined in relation to the Lamb. The power of God is Lamb-power. God’s way of conquering is Lamb-like. To say that the temple is God and the Lamb is to say that the kind of power and authority associated with the temple is the power and authority of servanthood that lifts up the lowly, not domination and elite power-over.
The close linkage of God the Almighty and the Lamb is reiterated with the statement about needing no sun or moon, but only the glory of God as the city’s light and the Lamb as its lamp. The reference to sun and moon might also be alluding to the ways the gods of the Empire were linked with those two celestial entities.
That this is a place of healing and welcome, the desired outcome of the human project, is underscored with the somewhat surprising presence of the kings of the earth and the glory of the nations who walk by God and the Lamb’s light (21:24). Clearly we are to understand these “kings” and these “nations” to be the “kings” and “nations” mentioned throughout the book as being opposed to God. John could not possibly have used those terms here without meaning to evoke his earlier usage.
We may hearken back to the opening of the book, where Jesus is described “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). One way to read the entire book is to see it as the story of how Jesus’s kingship in relation to the nations and kings is established. It is Jesus’s conquering through persevering love that ultimately brings down the empires that had established his rule in relation to the kings of the earth. Both the constant allusions to the call on John’s readers themselves to conquer in the same way and this image of the ultimate healing of the nations and kings are meant to challenge and encourage John’s readers. Your work is crucial.
It is actually not surprising the New Jerusalem would contain this kind of healed citizenry in light of the message of the Lamb. To “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” is to cultivate his sense of justice—a desire for restoring wholeness, not punishing judgment. Those who are conformed to the image of the Lamb with share his love and will share his desire for healing. We get a hint of this dynamic when we follow the process of the answer to the cries of the “martyrs” in 6:9-11. They cry out for vengeance. They are then given white robes (a powerful symbol for sharing in the Lamb’s path of life) and told to wait. As they wait, they (we may imagine) come to understand better the meaning of “vengeance” (or, taking justice) in light of the Lamb. So finally, those human beings who, through the Dragon’s deception, had shed the blood of the saints and prophets, themselves find healing.
Not only do we read of the kings and nations being in New Jerusalem, we also read of how it is that they can be there. The city’s “gates will never by shut by day—and there will be no night there” (21:25). This is an effective way to say the gates are always open. The city is indeed a light to the nations, meant to draw all who would want to be there inside the gates. This image signals a fulfillment of the Bible’s core promise going back to the call of Abraham and Sarah, that their descendents would bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). “People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev 21:26). The entire point of the story Revelation tells, and the story the Bible as a whole tells, is that God has acted to bring healing to all of creation in harmony with God’s creative intent from the very beginning.
In the light of the expansiveness of this vision of the kings of the earth and the nations finding healing, it is crucial to note the caveat that follows immediately: “Nothing unclean will entire it” (21:27). God’s work in empowering the Lamb’s faithful witness and in ultimately destroying the destroyers of the earth is to bring healing and wholeness. God’s holiness is not an attribute of God that makes it impossible for God to be in the presence of uncleanness (if we recognize Jesus as the clearest manifestation of God in the world we know this can’t be what God’s holiness is like). What God’s holiness is about is empowering human beings to be made clean. Just as Jesus ministered among sinners in order to help them find wholeness, so New Jerusalem welcomes everyone in order to help them find wholeness.
That the stipulation that nothing unclean will be found in New Jerusalem follows on the heals of the emphasis on the kings’ presence there indicates that the main point here is not that the city remains discriminatory and exclusive, but that one key purpose of the city is to be a place where even the worst of God’s human enemies are transformed. It’s a tremendous message of hope—and should serve as a great motivation for Lamb-followers to be agents of his transformation.
To say “only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will be present, again, is not a statement of exclusivity but of identity. God’s call is a wide-open call, one that is embraced by countless multitudes. It appears from earlier in the book, that everyone starts out in this book and only those who explicitly turn against God run the risk of having their names erased from that book (3:5). We should recognize the possibility that for some this erasure may be permanent, but the presence of the kings of the earth here indicates that the erasure threat is only that, a threat. God’s intent is that as many names as possible will indeed remain in the book of life. That it is the Lamb’s book of life should be enough to make that intention clear.