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THEOLOGY > Future > New Heaven and New Earth > The Holy City  


John states the following: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). Later he adds: “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (v. 10). How are such statements to be understood? Are they to be interpreted literally, or is there symbolism involved?

What are the implications of adopting a literal interpretation?

The “city” is a place; it is not a concept or a symbol; the word “city” means a real city; the descriptions of the city read like the descriptions of a real city, albeit, a supernatural city, one prepared by God.

This city is prepared in heaven and comes down from heaven to the new earth; it will be seen descending from heaven to the earth; evidently the city is currently suspended in space somewhere.

The city is in the form of a cube, like the Most Holy Place, with the three dimensions being approximately 1400 miles each; the city is of pure gold, clear as glass.

The city is surrounded by a high wall of jasper with twelve gates, three on each side; on the gates are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; each gate is a pearl, and there is an angel at each gate; the gates are never shut; the wall has twelve foundations, with each foundation being a separate jewel or having separate jewels, and on the foundations are the names of the twelve apostles (whose name is the twelfth name?); the wall is over 200 feet, either high or wide.

A river containing the water of life flows from the throne of God and through the middle of the street of the city; on each side of the river is the tree of life, with a different fruit each month; the fruit is for healing.

There is no temple in the city and no light is there; God Himself will be worshipped and His presence provides the light.

It would seem that the descriptions in the text must be understood in a very real sense; the text does not seem to indicate any other possibility.

But it can be argued that the description in Revelation seems to go beyond a natural understanding; in fact, it could even be argued that a literal interpretation detracts from the significance of the passage and demeans the teaching conveyed by the passage. To stress the exclusive literal nature of the city perhaps invites a certain lack of respect for the significance of the passage, as well as opening the door for criticism from non-believers.

What are the implications if a symbolic interpretation is adopted?

The city is a symbol or a concept conveying a fact or truth; reference to the literal is a means of teaching a greater spiritual truth.

The city is said to be “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2); thus the concepts of bride, husband, and city are grouped together;

In v. 9 John is told by one of the seven angels: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” and then in v. 10 John is carried to a high mountain and shown the holy city Jerusalem; it appears that the angel is identifying the city with believers; when John is shown the Bride, he is shown the city.

Jerusalem is referred to in a symbolic sense in other passages: see Gal. 4:26, and note that in v. 24 Paul states that what he is affirming “may be interpreted allegorically” (ESV, but “which things are symbolic” in NKJV); Paul is teaching that true believers belong to the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Hebrews “the assembly of the firstborn” is identified with “the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22-24; “firstborn” is plural; see: 11:10, 13-16; 13:14; Phil. 3:20).

An approach to the passage from the perspective of symbolism does not force upon the passage a city that seems to be inconsistent with reality and strains credulity. And at the same time it is consistent with the implications of the apocalyptic language of the book (see: Apocalyptic Literature).

Because of the fluid character of the imagery
it is wise not to distinguish rigidly between the inhabitants of the city (the saints)
and the city itself (saints together with the glorified creation).
New Geneva Study Bible

If the proper approach is symbolism then the vivid descriptions listed above teach spiritual truth, truth regarding Christ, the Church, and the relationship between the two. Combined in the passage are elements from the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and even the earthly city of Jerusalem, indicating that the larger significance of each of these is found in the spiritual implications of each. Regarding the vision of the holy city, Donald Guthrie wrote:

The whole vision is clearly symbolic of a perfect state of existence. The new Jerusalem is specifically identified with the bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9, 10). The personal imagery gives way to a city image, which is better able to portray the corporate character of the redeemed community . . . The over-all impression is that redeemed man in communion with God has a glorious future in store for him. the details may be presented in a symbolic way, but the truth is unmistakable. The vision forms a fitting conclusion, not only to the NT canon, but to the whole sweep of NT theology (NT Theology, 887).

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