The apostle John shows great interest in the city of Jerusalem. From the Holy City, the City of David, some of the religious elite came to John the Baptist to ask, “Who are you?” (John 1:19). According to John, Jesus went up to Jerusalem after having performed His first miracle and cleansed the temple at Passover time (2:13). There, many believed in Him (v. 23). Thus began an interest in the Holy City and its festivals, around which John structured his gospel account of the life and ministry of the Savior.
Yet throughout John’s writings, there is always a tension between the importance of Jerusalem in God’s purposes and the fact that these purposes transcend the earthly city that had been so long beloved of the people of God. Celebrated by the psalmists as the city of prophets and the mother of kings, Jerusalem was at the very center of the outworking of God’s redemption in human history. Yet Jesus declared outside its precincts, to a Samaritan woman, that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (4:21).
This is illustrated in Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem in John 12:12–19. In Psalm 118:26, David had declared blessed the one who came in the Lord’s name; now the crowds cried “hosanna” in fulfilment of this prediction, as the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 was realized — the King of Zion had entered the city, sitting on a donkey’s colt. Yet His enemies — Jerusalem’s religious elite — declared, horrified, that “the world has gone after him” (John 12:19). Nothing demonstrated this more than the appearance of Greek Gentiles desiring to see Jesus (vv. 20–22), a phenomenon interpreted by Jesus Himself as the result of the dying of a seed in the earth that would bear much fruit (v. 24). His own death, in other words, in the environs of the Holy City would draw men and women from all over the world to the Savior.
These themes coalesce in the book of Revelation. The Bible concludes with John’s vision of a glorified church from all over the world populating heaven. The church, the bride of Christ, is presented to her heavenly Bridegroom in John’s vision. That vision, in which there is so much that is old and drawn from the Old Testament, also contains much that is new.
The apex of the new creation is a new Jerusalem that is characterized by several distinctive features. Unlike the old Jerusalem, this city is a perfect cube in shape, which is full of the divine glory — just like the inner sanctuary of the temple. In old Jerusalem, that glory was domesticated within the temple precincts, but its effulgence is now the characteristic of the heavenly city.
It is portrayed as an ideal city, with a wall of demarcation running round it and twelve gates on which are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes as well as twelve foundations upon which are inscribed the names of the twelve apostles. This Jerusalem is the culmination of God’s redemptive design; this is the church that Jesus has been building (Matt. 16:18). The foundations have long been laid, and the walls mark it out as a distinct entity, built for the people of God.
Surprisingly, and significantly,
there is no temple in this new Jerusalem. After all, it was the temple that gave the glory to the city, not the city that gave glory to the temple. But the most sacred element within the walls of old Jerusalem is missing from the new. The shadows of the older covenant have completely disappeared now that the perfect day has come. The Lamb of God is the sacred element of the new Jerusalem, who gives the heavenly city all its luster and glory. Things that were glorious in nature — things like the sun and the moon — are not necessary in glory. This is the land of perfect day, where there is no night (Rev. 21:25), where the light of the moon becomes like the light of the sun in the day when the Lord binds up the brokenness of His people (Isa. 30:26).
The city-bride of Christ is further described in terms of safety and sinlessness. The gates of the city, so important for keeping safe those who were within the walls and excluding those without, are now perpetually open (60:11; Rev. 21:25). This city is populated by perfect, clean, holy, sinless men and women — the redeemed of the Lord who return to Jerusalem with everlasting joy (Isa. 35:10). There will be no more sorrow. The day when Jeremiah and Jesus lamented over Jerusalem is gone. The roll call is complete. Those whose names are recorded in the book of life are accounted for. All of Christ’s soldiers have returned home.
This really is the most wonderful description of heaven, replete with biblical imagery yet transcending every attempt to capture its perfection in human language. Such a city as John describes defies our powers to imagine it. Why, then, as John Calvin says, should we fear death? “If we reflect that by death we are recalled from exile to inhabit our native country, a heavenly country, shall this give us no comfort?” On the contrary: “no man has made much progress in the school of Christ who does not look forward with joy to the day of death and final resurrection” (Institutes 3.9.5).