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”?


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