Revelation 21:15-21 The Shape of Glory

When the apostle John spiritually visited the eschatological mountain of Scripture, he joined an elite fraternity. The first man to stand on the mountain of God was Moses, after redeeming God’s people from Egypt. There, Moses dwelt in the presence of God’s glory, received the Ten Commandments, and was also shown the pattern of God’s tabernacle (Ex. 25:40). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel was taken to the high mountain of God where an angel holding a measuring reed showed him the dimensions of a new temple for God (Ezek. 40:1-3). Now John ascends the theological apex of the earth to see the Bible’s final vision of the city of God.

Following Ezekiel’s experience, he writes: “The one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls” (v. 15). The angel’s golden rod, a fitting tool for the service of God, not only reveals the city’s dimensions but marks out the realm where God has pledged His sovereign protection (see 11:1-2). John was shown not physical geography but spiritual realities pertaining to the final home of God’s people. John writes that this vision employs “human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement” (v. 17). This means that the physical dimensions have a symbolic meaning regarding the heavenly glory of the city awaiting believers in Christ.

The vision of the eternal city shown to John runs from 21:9 to 22:5. 21:15-17 provides the shape and measurements of the city, which convey truths regarding its character. First, we consider the shape: “The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width” (v. 21:16). This description reflects the model of the tabernacle given to Moses, which had God’s abode constructed in rectangles and squares. As a “foursquare” city, the eternal Jerusalem reflects perfect balance, harmony, and proportion. Many ancient writers used the expression foursquare to speak of integrity, completion, or perfection, and these qualities belong to the holy new Jerusalem.

The New Jerusalem is constructed not only as a square but as a cube: “Its length and width and height are equal” (v. 21:16). Even more than the square, the cube speaks of perfect completion. In the tabernacle that Moses made, as with the temple of Solomon, there was only one cubical space: the holy of holies where God’s presence dwelt (1 kings 6:20). In the original tabernacle, the inner sanctum occupied only a small space at the center of Israel’s camp and only one person could enter it, the high priest, only one day per year. But now all the people of God live in the inner sanctum to behold His glory all the time, since the entire city is the holy of holies.

In addition to the “foursquare” and cubical shape of the city, the angel gives its measurement: “And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia” (v. 21:16). The first thing we notice is the staggering immensity of this city. Taking a stadios as 200 yards, 12,000 stadia equal approximately 1500 miles. A city this size would occupy the entire Mediterranean world from Jerusalem to Spain. It is obvious that this city is designed to house a vast number of people beyond human reckoning, especially when we remember that as a cube it is a high-rise tower that soars above any manmade construction to a celestial height.

Not only is the great size of the measurements significant, but the numbers themselves are highly symbolic. Each length of the city is 12,000 stadia, with twelve representing both the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the New Testament. This number is therefore intended to symbolize that this city not only houses the people of God but is the people of God. A cube has twelve edges; the sum of this city is 12,0000 times 12, or 144,000. This is the very number used earlier for the assembled entirety of God’s elect” twelve times twelve for the Old and New Testaments, multiplied by a thousand, which speaks of completion and fulfillment.

The emphasis on the number of God’s people is extended to the measurement of the walls: “He also measured its wall, 144 cubits (v. 21:17). The symbolic meaning of 144 cubits is that the wall encompasses the entirety of God’s elect from all times. In this holy and eternal city, all of God’s covenant purposes and the promises of the Bible are fulfilled: the entire vast number of God’s redeemed people will live in the glory of His immediate presence so as to experience the perfection of life as God designed it in eternity past.

In addition to the city’s dimensions, we are also told of the precious materials in its construction (vv. 21:18-21). The point of these descriptions is that the glorified church reflects the glory and beauty of the holy God. The splendor of even the purest gold is inadequate to describe God’s majesty, so here the gold is like a crystal that radiates with God’s glory.

The impression of God’s radiant glory is heightened by the foundation stones, which are “adorned with every kind of jewel” (vv. 21:19-20). These jewels are not the foundation stones themselves but are set into them. This connects with Peter’s statement that Christians “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). The eternal city is built of God’s people themselves, and His grace within us is now working the glory that will then reflect the splendor of His beauty forever.

The idea of God’s people as a holy priesthood is heightened by the realization that these jewels correspond to the gems that formed a rectangular pattern of the breastplate of Israel’s high priest. This makes sense when we realize that Aaron’s garments were intended to replicate the tabernacle in miniature and that his breastpiece was designed to reflect the glory of the presence of God. The twelve stones represented the twelve tribes of Israel, whose names were engraved on them. The people formerly represented by those stones now are themselves the holy of holies in which God dwells with His glory within them.

By bearing the stones into God’s presence, Aaron not only represented the people in making the atoning sacrifice for their sins, but also signified God’s pledge that one day the whole people of God would live within the holy of holies. Revelation 21:16-20 sees the fulfillment of this promise in the eternal age to come. It is noteworthy that the foundation stones of Revelation 21 bear the names of the twelve apostles, since the promise of Israel is fulfilled in the gospel-believing apostolic church. Jesus Christ is, of course, the Great High Priest who brings His people into God’s presence through the true sacrifice of His blood, ensuring the saving blessing of God on every believer.

The crowning detail of this spectacular vision is John’s description of the city gates (v. 21). In the ancient world, pearls were valued far above gems; here the gate towers are each formed by a single gigantic pearl. The gates of pearl are a symbol of unimaginable beauty and riches. This is why Jesus used a “pearl of great value” to describe His kingdom of salvation (Matt. 13:45-46). Since these gates provide entry into Christ’s eternal city, it is no wonder that they are formed of pearls. We are thus reminded that nothing is more valuable to us or more glorious in fulfillment than the salvation we receive through humble faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In reflecting on this remarkable vision, we must consider a number of truths. The first is the unity of the Bible. The promise embedded in Moses’ more primitive tabernacle structure and in the high priest’s breastplate has in God’s timing come to perfect fulfillment in the New Jerusalem to come. We are part of that history now, and the Bible that guides us presents a single redemptive purpose that can only be the work of the true and Sovereign God. The remarkable unity of this book that was written over fifteen hundred years, together with its transcendent message that was far beyond what Moses could have conceived, bears testimony to the divine nature of the Bible’s origin.

Another truth for us to emphasize is that God’s eternal dwelling is not a place but is His people. This is not to say that after Christ’s return there is no physical realm of God, for there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). Yet the symbolism of John’s vision depicts not merely that there is a place for God’s people to dwell, but also that God’s people are the ultimate place where God intends to dwell in the radiance of His glory. The key truth for Christians to understand today is not only that we are accepted as righteous through faith in Christ but that, having been justified, we have God living in us through the Holy Spirit. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

As Christ lives in us, He is preparing us as “living stones” who are together “being built up as a spiritual house” for God (1 Peter 2:5). The day is coming when we will finally put on the glory of God in order to be His fitting dwelling. Or to put is differently, the jewels of the city in John’s vision are the adornment of the divine Bridegroom for the bride He is taking into His love forever. In this life, Christ is working that beauty in us in order to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).

Revelation 21:15-21 Study Questions:

What is the significance of the connection between the holy of holies and the New Jerusalem?

How are the walls of the city decorated (vv. 18-21)?

How might we live in a way that is open to receiving great gifts from God rather than always trying to build everything ourselves?

How do you see the glory of this future reality peeping through in our world today?

Ages To Stages RSVP

Ages To Stages RSVP

Revelation 21:9-14 The City with Foundations

Revelation 21:9 begins the final of the seven visionary cycles in the book of Revelation and the last main section of the book. We see this in the angel’s invitation, “Come” (v. 9). In Revelation 4:1, John was summoned into heaven to witness God’s plan for the church age, beginning the cycles of visions from chapters 4-16. In Revelation 17:1, John was told, “Come,” this time to witness the judgment and final destruction of Christ’s enemies (Rev. 17:1-21:8). Now John is called to witness the bliss of Christ’s people in the eternal glory.

John makes a point of stating that this summons came from “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues” (v. 9). This angel of wrath reminds us that the fulfillment of God’s plan relies equally on God’s work of judgment and of salvation. Seeing this angel who earlier condemned the great prostitute (17:1) warns us that all history is summed up by the two women of Revelation: we must belong either to the harlot Babylon, doomed to perish for wantonness in this life, or to the bride of God’s Son, blessed to enter into glory through a holiness that begins even now.

When the angel invites John to see the bride, he is looking ahead to the time when the sacred marriage between Christ and His church has taken place, leading to an eternity of loving intimacy and mutual sharing. The basis for this love is stated by the reference to Christ as the “Lamb.” Jesus is referred to in this way seven times in this final section of Revelation, emphasizing that the union between Jesus and His people is based on His sacrificial death to remove the curse of our sins. The cross is sufficient not only to establish the beginning of the Christian life but to sustain our relationship with Jesus forever.

Believers learn from verse 9 not only what we will be but what we are now. Having come to Jesus in saving faith, we are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb so as to enter into His love. If you are a Christian, you are being prepared in the beauty of holiness so that the purifying of your character is a primary task of this life. But you are already betrothed to Christ, your eternal destiny in His love having been made certain by His sacrifice for you. You are fundamentally different from everyone who is not Christian, and your lifestyle is to reflect this difference in holy obedience. Those cleansed by the Lamb are delivered from the judgment awaiting the harlot Babylon.

While John’s vision begins with a reference to Christ’s bride, the bulk of the passage describes the church as the holy city of God. These ideas may be joined to remind us that this vision of walls and gates describes the people of Christ themselves. John was “carried…away in the Spirit to a great high mountain” (v. 10), which he ascended spiritually, not physically, to see his own future together with the whole of the church.

The angel brings John to a high mountain where the eternal city is located. Isaiah foretold: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the great highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it” (Isa. 2:2). On this high mountain of eternity, John was shown “the holy city of Jerusalem.” Here we see the image, so often emphasized in Revelation, of God dwelling with His people to share His glory. God promised Abraham a vast multitude of spiritual offspring, as numerous as the stars in the desert sky, and a home in which they would dwell (Gen. 15:1-21). Now that promise is fulfilled in the holy city, true Jerusalem.

John sees the city “coming down out of heaven from God” (v. 10). This city does not represent the achievement of man in finally erecting a self-glorying stairway to heaven. It is instead the culmination of God’s working in redemptive history to bring about His loving eternal purpose. Its name, “Jerusalem,” plainly identifies the city as the final result of His ancient working through the people of Israel and especially by the saving ministry of Christ for the sake of His covenant people.

John not only emphasizes that the city comes down as God’s gracious gift but also highlights its special character: it is “the holy city” (v. 10). The purpose of this city is the fellowship of God with His people, and therefore it is a holy place for holy ones. John compares the holiness and glory of God’s city to a shinning jewel: “its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (v. 11). We are not exactly sure about the identity of jewels called by ancient names, but the idea here is not so much of transparency as it is of a brilliant, sparkling gem. We should envision a diamond shinning out in beautiful facets of light. Similarly, God’s holy city, composed of His holy people, will reflect all His attributes in the perfection of their glory.

If God’s Word is not changing you in the direction of spiritual holiness and moral purity, then on what basis do you expect to be part of “the holy city of Jerusalem,” which radiates the glory of God like jasper? Christians will rightly answer that they expect to enter this glory through faith alone, trusting in the finished work of Christ as the Lamb of God who died for our sins. This is profoundly true. But many professing Christians fail to realize that Christ’s finished work of justification invariably launches a present work of sanctification that will be finished only in the age to come. The mark of the Christian is therefore a growing holiness in faith-communion with God through Jesus Christ.

Not only is John shown the church as a beautiful bride and a holy city radiating the glory of God, but this opening section of the final visions in Revelation adds details about the wall that surrounds the Jerusalem to come: “It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed” (v. 12).

The wall surrounding a great city has the purpose of providing security. There admittedly no enemies remaining after the final judgment. But the wall conveys the security of salvation inside the city as well as the protective character of God for His people. It is “a great, high wall,” symbolizing the inviolable care of God in saving His own. The walls of God’s city are adorned “with twelve gates” (v. 12). Gates function to permit entry into a city, and these twelve gates show the abundant invitation for all people to enter God’s city through faith in Christ. There are three gates on each side of the squared city (v. 13). In Revelation, the four corners speak of the entirety of the world from which God’s people are gathered. These are not small gates, but large entry towers, fitting for a great multitude from every tribe, language, and nation that are assembled into God’s city.

Each gate is assigned an angel (v. 12). With such guardians, none will enter the eternal Jerusalem except those who are sealed for entry through the blood of the Lamb. At the beginning of Revelation, John was shown the angel of the churches (Rev. 1:20). The Bible does indicate the idea of guardian angels, and as God’s sentinels these angels know who belongs to the Lord and who does not. None will enter fraudulently or on any other basis that that established by God.

Furthermore, “on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed” (v. 12). Here, the emphasis is not on the individual tribes but the twelve of them together. All through Revelation, twelve is the number of God’s people (see 7:4), just as it was the number of the tribes of God’s Old Testament nation. This city represents the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and the result of God’s redeeming work as revealed through His servants the prophets.

Finally, “the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (v. 14). Ancient walls had large decorative foundation stones, and here the apostles are seen as the foundation of the eternal church. This imagery refers to the New Testament witness of Jesus Christ and the evangelistic labor of the apostles in founding the first churches.

If you look to the foundation of your faith and your hope of salvation you will also find your answer in the mission of Christ’s apostles. It is through the written testimony of God’s Word, commissioned through the eyewitness disciples, that we are certain of our hope through Jesus Christ. The apostles themselves took their stand on God’s Word. Our salvation hope rests securely on the apostolic testimony inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, which declares salvation now even as that Word will form the foundation of God’s eternal city. It is through this same foundation of God’s Word that every true church is established and built up today.

As Christians look ahead to the holy city of the age to come, we thank God that the destination is better than the journey. We have what Paul called “our blessed hope” in the return of Christ and the glory He brings (Titus 2:13). For all the many blessings of this life, we like Abraham face present trials and disappointments by “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). By faith, the things of the world to come become real to us now. We thus begin to reflect now some of the glory of God that in the end will radiate from us like a glittering jewel.

Revelation 21:9-14 Study Questions:

How is the New Jerusalem specifically designed to reflect the identity of God’s people (vv. 12-14)?

How is studying God’s Word changing you?

What is the purpose of “the holy city”?