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?